Players like Antonio Rudiger and Son Heung Min play with a style and freedom that says something about their love for the game.
The moment came during the first half of the Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea in December, when the ball fell to Antonio Rudiger who, despite being a distance from the West Ham goal that made what followed optimistic, attempted a shot on goal that ballooned hopelessly over the crossbar, before running impishly back to his correct position, chuckling to himself like a naughty schoolboy.
Football, we can all agree, takes itself too seriously these days, but a slow creep over a couple of decades has normalised what we really should consider beyond parody. The Champions League has an anthem, as if UEFA is a nation state. Before the start of Premier League matches, when the teams take to the pitch, the referee takes the match ball from a ceremonial plinth, like an offering to the Gods of Football, only in reverse. The Soccer Saturday music is severe enough that you half expect Jeff Stelling to announce that war has been declared on China rather than tell us about Carlisle United’s third goal at Harrogate Town.
The Championship play-off final is The £200m Match while the FA Cup languishes because success can increasingly only be interpreted as an amount of money, while history, tradition and continuity’s lack of intrinsic value renders it redundant. We’re even hitting a tipping point at which competition doesn’t matter as much as size, when it comes to deciding who gets to play elite-level European club football. A little something has to be tossed to the richest clubs. They might pick up and their ball and go home otherwise.
So in amongst all this gloom – it’s fair to say that we live in a society that is increasingly fine-tuning its ability to make us angry and to take everything in bad faith – a player who can let that mask slide for a moment, someone who looks as though there is nothing on this goddam earth that he would rather be doing right now than play football, feels like a palate cleanser. Antonio Rudiger’s delighted face was a welcome change of view from the self-regarding, preening and gurning faces that hog the back pages of our newspapers and our television screens.
The same goes for Son Heung Min. The speed of acceleration with the ball at his feet, the finishing, and the unerring ability to pick out his strike partner as if by radar are all well and good, but it’s the extent to which he plays as though he loves football that really makes him stand out. It brings a sense of freedom and exhilaration to the way he plays. When he’s running through a defence to get on the end of a pass, the space opens up in front of him, and even the incredible athleticism has to take second place to the style with which it’s all put together.
There have always been players who just so happened to be extremely good at football but had mixed feelings about the game. David Batty is the example that always springs immediately to mind, quite likely because his ascent to the top of the professional game came at a time when football was becoming fashionable again for the first time in decades, meaning that the background noise often felt like an arm’s race to declare one’s fandom.
But even this can be charming to see. Gareth Bale may be annoying Real Madrid at the moment (and everybody knows that irritating the superclubs is good for a little low humour – sorry guys, but that’s just the little price you have to pay for all that winning), but there’s no doubt that he is living his best life. It’s not that he doesn’t like football; it’s just that when he’s not playing, he’d rather be playing golf. And given that, at 32 years old and with a history of injuries, he’s well and truly into the autumn of his playing career and is probably fairly comfortable with shrugging his shoulders at the outbursts from the Spanish press. Football clubs commoditise players; it’s their entire business model. There’s nothing wrong with that dynamic being turned on its head every now and again.
But the footballer who plays the game like they love playing the game is a joy forever. They’re one of the most important connections between the team and the supporters, and the supporters know by instinct who they are. They’re secure enough in their ability to be able to allow themselves to smile.
There has long been this idea in football that there has to be some sort of cruelty or some sort of physical pain in order to succeed, as though that is the sacrifice that a player has to make in order to get to the top of the game, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Furrowing their brows and puffing their cheeks out like a bull waiting to take on a matador works for some, and it’s hardly as though these players aren’t beloved too. Supporters love that level of commitment. But the players who love the game are instantly recognisable because we see ourselves in them. It’s a different kind of commitment but it’s valuable all the same.