Here are three things guaranteed to make football fans of a certain vintage feel the weight of years. First, in April 2010, Portsmouth’s Lenny Sowah became the first player born after the 1992 formation of the English Premier League to start a match in the competition.
Second, in July 1994, after scoring a goal against the Netherlands in the semi-final of that year’s World Cup, the Brazilian forward Bebeto famously ran to the touchline and began rocking an imaginary baby in his arms. That child is now turning out for his father’s old club, Flamengo.
And finally, after Manchester United’s Phil Jones won his second cap for England, he was asked about the national team’s performances in a previous European Championship.
“Euro ’96?” said Jones. “I don’t remember that. I would only have been four.”
The passage of time throws the inherent ridiculousness of organised sport into sharp focus. There is corporatisation, growing in size and influence with the haphazard gluttony of a mosquito at a nudist colony. There are the oligarchs, seeking tax havens while devouring (super)stars and distorting reality in a decent approximation of a black hole.
There’s the constant mistreatment of women that seems to take place every time alcohol and professional sportsmen mix, and sometimes when it doesn’t. And, unique to football, there is Sepp Blatter, a man so single-mindedly dedicated to alienating minorities that he has managed to unite the majority in a latticework of shared irritation.
There’s something missing, and I think it’s my heroes.
I don’t know where they went, those colossi of my youth. I remember the brilliance and the brimstone of Eric Cantona. I’m old enough to have seen Diego Maradona invent and implode in equally spectacular fashion. There was Valderrama and his mane; that all-conquering AC Milan team with its fearsome Dutch trident of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard; and a Barcelona team so good it had to juggle Hagi and Stoichkov before Romario gave way to Ronaldo. The real one, that is.
There aren’t many players left who were around when I started watching football. In fact, I can think of just two who still manage to defy not just age and gravity, but expectation.
One is Ryan Giggs, who turns a sprightly 40 this November. He’s been in or about the United midfield for more than two decades, and while he’s spent the past few trading pace for guile, he’s still fleet enough of foot to dodge the fallout from an infidelity scandal that may yet add tarnish to a glittering, trophy-laden career.
The other is Alessandro del Piero, turning 39 in the same month, who stayed at Juventus when the club was relegated for match-fixing. He captained his side back to Serie A, won the World Cup, and didn’t get his contract renewed even after he offered to play a final season for free. He now turns out for Sydney FC, adding class to a league still in its infancy.
While it’s grand to see those two still pulling on club colours, it hurts a little to see how old they are, and how old we are by extension. Perhaps Cantona had it right when he retired in 1997, taking us all by surprise. Not for him a steady decline: he neatly evaded the demands of a footballer’s dotage, of a body running to stand still. But he also dodged the mushrooming of cameras at training, of endless interviews and pre- and post-match shows and slick, glossy punditry.
There is no room for myth in the 24-hour news cycle. Not only are games aggressively televised and marketed, players are too. Minutiae of behaviour, one and off the pitch, are endlessly analysed. Tantrums are immortalised on the internet. Poppies of all heights are chopped down. And when someone is simultaneously larger than life and all too human, can they be respected? Can they be a hero?
I’d like to think so. I have no heroes left, but I hope others do, for there is plenty of opportunity. All sport, not just football, is Sisyphean – succeed one year and you win the opportunity to repeat your labours the next, with no guarantee of success.
But football is the great equaliser because it rewards skill over brawn. The best player in the world is built like a hobbit. The underdog always has a chance; the meritocracy is flawed, but healthy. And it means – whether you’re Mia Hamm, breaking yet another record, or Baddrol Bakhtiar, squeezing a penalty home in the final of the SEA games – that heroes can come from anywhere.
Not heroes in the way that nurses or firefighters are, but in a way that makes an entire country dream of and bask in fleeting, silly success. Heroes in the romantic, ironic, Bowie-conjured sense of the word. Just for one day.