Image continues to be almost everything in football

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor
September 19, 2017
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Looks matter. They’re not supposed to, but they do. When a mother kisses her overweight son on the forehead and tells him that she thinks he’s beautiful, she knows – really – that the world will judge him largely on his appearance.

Often, football is erroneously presented as a reflection of society, but this is an instance in which that’s actually true. The way a player holds himself, dresses and behaves – his aesthetic qualities – matter almost as a much what he does on the pitch.

As recently as last week, Harry Kane’s goalscoring credentials were being discussed in the aftermath of his match-winning performance against Borussia Dortmund, with it being suggested that he’d be appreciated more if he had a different-coloured passport.

That’s probably true. Being English in this climate is a particularly nasty ailment and Kane, with his resting open-mouthed expression, clunky running-style and flushed cheeks, is just a bit too native to be fashionable. If, for instance, highlights of his goals were to appear on European league round-up shows or be described second-hand by an Italian lilt, he would almost certainly be the continent’s forward du jour.

Has he considered a fringe? Maybe even deed-polling an accent into his name?

Admittedly, this topic flirts with Sam Allardyce’s notorious attempt at self-promotion – and, unfortunately, the former Bolton, West Ham, and Crystal Palace manager has become the wheezing, sneering poster child for this problem. But the Allardyce/Allardici issue is not part of the discussion; in that instance, it is very much the substance which informs the perception. The playing style, the technical preferences, the rise-and-fall arcs associated with his teams have been his career’s inhibitor, not a series of imagined limitations created by his accent and Pint O’ Wine shtick.

Paul Scholes is as good an example as any of this problem. It’s rather trite to mention that he was under-appreciated in his time and everyone should now be aware of his worth to Manchester United from the late 1990s onwards. It’s also highly unoriginal to cite his ginger hue, pale skin and generic Salford accent as veils for his worth.

What is less common, however, is an appropriate appreciation for what he actually was. Scholes may have been a midfield goalscorer of the highest order during his prime, but his real worth was to United’s attacking continuity. Looking back over the many goals of that era, it’s staggering how many had his awareness at their root. How often, for instance, was the space for a David Beckham cross manufactured by one of his rapid switches of play? How many times was an opposing midfield gutted by one of his vertical passes before a swift Cole, Yorke or Giggs interchange changed the score.

In May 1999, David Beckham carved in an equaliser against Tottenham on the final day of the season (the first part of that famous treble) and Ian Walker’s hapless dive, Beckham’s pumping fist and his swishing blonde curtains are all intertwined with that glorious surge forever, but Scholes’s defence-breaking pass has been extracted from it.

Look at it: the subtle move into the pocket of space, the feint to shoot, and the lightning-quick shift of the feet and pass to a player well beyond his periphery. It was a fabulous bit of play.

Hindsight has since made us appreciate Scholes far more, but for much of his career – beyond the boundaries of Manchester United’s support, at least – he was an instrument of violence. A volleyer, an opportunistic snatcher of chances, and a highly accomplished ball-striker, but not necessarily a “thinker”. His image was responsible for that. A northern boy with a £6 haircut who was assumed to be the product of God-given ability and Carrington’s technical staff; give him David Silva’s old mop and a healthy tan and, quite rightly, he would have been seen as Old Trafford’s Garry Kasparov.

A more contemporary example doesn’t come from England, but from Germany’s Bundesliga. Thomas Muller, like several of his teammates, may be suffering through a period of friction at the Allianz Arena, but over the last decade he has inarguably become an immortal for club and country.

Again, that’s something which is accepted now, but for which a long time was under dispute. Muller is an example of what happens when a player emerges from within the cracks of the game and without a proper designation. A forward, a midfielder? To this day, he doesn’t own a specific label and, to anyone outside football’s intelligentsia that’s a tough sell. A Raumdeuter (“space investigator”)? That’s the kind of neologism which is anathema to traditionalists and, in their mind, nothing more than pretentious tacticspseak.

But Muller was part of that resistance himself. In 2017, his limp socks, untucked shirt, and normal man image are part of his trademark, but initially delayed the rising of his stock. To overlook the subtleties in his game – the movement, the dragging runs – was to see only a player with a habit for scoring messy goals with imperfect connections. Rarely, if ever, does that kind of player get credited with changing the sport or creating a position. Conversely, football’s waypoints are typically marked out by very pure players who redefined their roles with overwhelming ability or undeniable impact, not – generally – by unrefined scruffs from tiny Bavarian towns.

Conveniently, the game which continues to define Muller both occurred on the brightest stage and presented this dilemma at its most troubling. The first-leg of the 2013 Champions League semi-final: Bayern’s humbling of Barcelona in a 4-0 win which effectively ended the tie. Muller would score the first and last goals, pushing a header through Victor Valdes at the back-post in the first-half and converting David Alaba’s cross from close-range in the second. Sandwiched between, though, was the header back across goal which presented Mario Gomez with a second and the sly body-check on Jordi Alba which allowed Arjen Robben to scuttle in for the third.

It was ninety minutes in which Muller looked clumsy, effective, awkward and brilliant; ultimately, a game which satisfied every misconception about the player but also left a single, inarguable conclusion about his worth hanging in the air.

In his autobiography “Open”, Andre Agassi often speaks regretfully about his notorious Nike advertising campaign; “Image is everything” would become both a mask for his ability and also a personal cross for him to bear. Late thirties Agassi is remembered now as one of the hardest-working players on tour and his book revealed him to be a tortured, sensitive soul, but that initial impression – all Las Vegas swagger and pencil-drawn aesthetics – lasted for close to a decade.

What was true then – and what the examples above continue to prove now – is that those who watch sport are easily seduced by what they see and hear. Agassi volunteered his image to the world and the long hair, the earrings, and the jean shorts he wore on court made his opposition towards it seem fanciful. Footballers rarely do the same. Often, the perceptions which surround them are formed by a spectator’s single glance or, more commonly, a wall of assumptions which the player must then spend the rest of his career trying to break through.

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