Wednesday, July 21, 2010
We Are All Made Of Stars
The failure of established 'Stars' to shine, certainly in the manner which they had in much of the promotional material issued by sponsors in the run-up to the tournament, seemed a defining feature of the 2010 World Cup. There were many debates around this on Minus the Shooting and Loki posted a piece questioning the ability of the Premier League to create stars. There's a huge amount of interesting tangents here to me and one is the nature of determining a Premier League star.
Star status, as conveyed by the Premier League, seems to be decided by a curiously liquid set of metrics. Nobody's quite sure what they are, but there comes a point when a player seems to be universally agreed to have qualified. It will start off slow, usually appearing in print or among supporters until no less a sage than Alan Shearer will declare some Saturday evening that "For me, he's World Class and at the moment he'd be my firstname on the teamsheet." A little probationary period will then follow where the judgement will be cemented or broken. A continuation of good form will see the endorsements and WAG opportunities start to roll in but a drop in form will do irreparable damage, negating almost all the previous good work. Just a couple of short weeks later may see number one fan Al declare "He doesn't do it often enough for me".
You flunked kid. You only get one shot here and you missed it. Oh well, it's Portsmouth and not Chelsea for you I'm afraid. Perhaps a move to the Bundesliga beckons and that's pretty much Siberia as far as we're concerned.
While there is no one way of ensuring World Class status, obviously it is often based on the number of goals a player scores, with the quality of them (tap-ins versus wonderstrikes etc) perhaps only influencing what kind of World Class player you will be - a great goalscorer being just as feted as a scorer of great goals. So van Nistlerooy quickly became World Class based on aggregate. If you score enough, its undeniable. Steven Gerrard on the other hand may never have been declared World Class were it not for his impressive ability to smash in 20-yard screamers often enough for it to be evident this is down to technique and not luck or opportunism.
Goals scored are the one true way a sport like soccer can be reduced to statistics. If you score 1 in 2 for long enough you're World Class. It cannot be denied. While there may be mutterings about 'not doing it against the big teams' this will only stick amongst a pernicious elite. People want stars. Why are you denying us them with these subtle counter arguments? Despite the increasing awareness of other stats - passes complete, assists made, ground covered - that will even appear on the screen throughout the game, the simple undeniable objectivity of goals scored is unrivaled. There are no variables or doubts or undermining little grey areas. It's your goal, all yours, your name will appear beside it forever in the annals. You can even run off on your own to celebrate it wildly and bask in the glory. Fuck the rest.
This is perhaps why people, at least those casually interested in football in this part of the world, have difficulty deeming a player like Iniesta or Xavi 'World Class'. The appreciation required doesn't fit neatly into a 'News at Ten' style clip reel. The match has to be watched in its entirety to fully appreciate their talent. This makes it difficult to transfer their status across borders the way Beckham's was - you only needed 10 seconds of your time to watch Beckham curl a delicious free-kick into the top corner and you could be safely assured that they weren't trying to trick you. He's World Class, don't you worry about that. But this Xavi guy, what does he do? If he's doing more than i think/notice maybe they all are? Maybe Beckham's doing less? I didn't sign up for this kind of questioning, I want certainty and assuredness from my media interaction thank you.
The result of this desire for certainty is that once World Class status is conveyed it can never be taken away. Michael Owen will be World Class until the day he retires, regardless of form or fitness or changing tactics in the game. It's a permanent title, like a Knighthood. As a result, there will always be some manager, most likely English, that will be willing to 'take a punt on a proven goalscorer'. "We all know Michael's World Class", they'll say, "hopefully we can give him the platform here to show everybody what he can still do". While it is obviously fitting that on retiring certain players are recognised as having been World Class, the difficulty lies in removing that status during their playing career.
The flip-side of course is that if you flunk your initial assessment, judgement can almost never be reversed. This was highlighted when Diego Forlan's victory as Golden Ball player in the World Cup was greeted by unseemly derision by the BBC punditry team. This was Forlan. Forlorn. The Sally Gunnell lookalike who (I think) ushered in the 'yellow card for taking off your shirt' law after an overenthusiastic goal celebration saw the game tipping-off again with Diego shirtless, the offending shirt balled up in his hands, running around terrier-like trying to regain possession. He's obviously improved but, come on, he's the same person. And, you know, it is the Spanish League/Uruguay.
It's funny how quickly arguments that are dismissed as bitty or excessively begrudging when made against a player in the PL - 'He's a flat-track bully' etc. - suddenly become valid when trying to prevent recognition of a foreigners status - 'The Spanish defences are terrible though'. (I wonder is there a precise measurement for a goal scored in La Liga. Maybe it's worth .61 of a Premier League goal?). This is all seemingly done not to protect the player, but to protect the judgement system. The output has to be unchallengeable. Surety is necessary.
I like to imagine Forlan contacting a sort of equivalent to the 'Dubious Goals' panel, some Kafkaesque bureau at the end of an anonymous telephone line, to see if he can get his case heard again. Plead the mitigating circumstances that prevented him from successfully auditioning for a place as a 'Star' during his time in England.
But we can't Diego, I'm sorry. You seem like a really nice guy and we're really happpy that everything's going well for you, we are, but we can't entertain doubt. If we do it for you we're going to have every Joe Soap looking for a re-count and it will make a mockery of the whole system. And we need to protect our current members, we can't go diluting their brand and related employment prospects because we want to have a more fair or efficient system.
And therein lies the rub Diego, if you don't get it first time, you can never get it, but if you do you'll get a first-class ticket to an unrivaled gravy train that never stops running.
It could be you. Or not.