Who by brave assent
April 22, 2011 § 13 Comments
Bravery is one of the great intangibles of football. It is a quality demanded by fans and craved by managers; it oozes from some players, it is gapingly and shockingly absent from others. You know it when you see it, and you feel it when you don’t. It has been held up as the quality that separates the good from the great; the inspirational from the inconsequential; and, if you’ll forgive a brief lapse into lumpen cliché, the men from the boys.
Ernest Hemingway doesn’t strike me as a man who would have had much time for football, but he knew a thing or two about bullfighting, and a thing or two more about writing. In Death in the Afternoon, his great and bloody exegesis on Spain and the bullring, he states that all matadors (bar three, but read the book for them) are brave, and explicates as follows:
The most common degree of bravery [is] the ability temporarily to ignore possible consequences. A more pronounced degree of bravery, which comes with exhilaration, is the ability not to give a damn for consequences; not only to ignore them but to despise them.
Of course, unlike bullfighting, football is not shot through with fundamental existential risk. Those footballers that have died on the pitch have not done so due to footballing mistakes, but due to tragic medical infirmity or sheer, staggering ill-fortune. Whereas a matador knows that he can die simply by being a bad matador, nobody ever died as a result of being a poor footballer. (With the possible exception of Andrés Escobar, but I hope it’s obvious why that isn’t really applicable here.)
Bravery doesn’t guarantee victory. Many brave footballers have left the field on the losing side; plenty of cowards have raised trophies. And, doubtless, many a brave matador has been gored, trampled, or otherwise damaged or destroyed despite his courage*. But bravery does guarantee admiration and adulation, and it also guarantees respect. It might therefore be suggested that bravery is as of much benefit to a footballer’s reputation as to his abilities; this might explain why so many swaggering muscle-bound neanderthals are desparate to maintain reputations as brave, hard, manly men (and might also, perhaps, explain why doing so doesn’t grant any greater repute as a footballer).
However, bravery is, in a strict sense, extremely stupid. Getting into an enclosed space with a large angry animal is an incredibly moronic thing to do, as is attempting to nutmeg a mouth-breathing sharp-studded thug of a centre-half. This is a prerequisite for a brave action: the consequences have to be so perilous that only the temporary ignorance, or the sublimation and subsequent disdain, can persuade an otherwise rational being to go through with it. “Brave” is a relative quality, conferred by those who admire from a position of knowing they would never do likewise. Nobody ever looked brave stabbing a rabbit, or lollipopping their way past Laurent Koscielny.
Which puts a brave footballer is something of an odd position, since what might amount to personal bravery could work to the detriment of the team. Stupidity in your own cause is fine; stupidity in a team game is rather less forgiveable. As an example, consider one of England’s more recent acts of apparently deleterious cowardice: David Beckham’s hop over Roberto Carlos in Shizuoka, Japan, 21 June 2002, ceding a ball that came to rest some ten or so seconds later, in the back of the England net.
It’s evident from the video that Beckham’s later claim that he thought the ball was on its way out was, at best, a touch disingenuous. He didn’t make the tackle because he didn’t want to hurt himself; by Hemingway’s measure — and, indeed, by common consent — he has failed to either ignore or deride the consequences of his actions, instead constraining his actions in full awareness of them, and so has lacked bravery. In this case, of course, it’s exacerbated by the subsequent goal for which Beckham has retrospectively shouldered a fair chunk of the blame (though quite what Paul Scholes was up to as the ball broke in midfield isn’t entirely clear either).
Counterfactual time: let’s assume that Beckham had gone in, full-blooded, like a proper non-sarong wearing, non-moisturising, non-pants advertising Englishman. Maybe he wins the tackle; maybe he doesn’t. But he does increase his chances of getting injured. And those chances in this instance weren’t just the usual chance than any footballer takes in contact: the sainted one’s metatarsal was, as you may recall, not-quite-healed. So important was his fitness that one company estimated that his absence from the tournament would cost them $150m, while The Sun — under the frankly risible headline “Beck Us Pray” — implored the nation to lay their hands on sticky newsprint and demand that God back England. (He didn’t.)
The point being that Beckham — who is neither as thick nor as egoistical as he is sometimes caricatured — would have been aware of this. He’d spent the build-up in an oxygen tent, with a fretting Sven-Göran Eriksson pacing outside; he had been told, told, and told again that England without Beckham was no England at all. And whatever you tell Becks three times is true. Had he been injured, the team would suffer. Therefore, he should not get injured. I’m not suggesting that there were team orders instructing him to stay out of challenges. There didn’t need to be.
Sometimes, being brave leads to broken bones. If Beckham had flown into the tackle, cleaned Roberto Carlos out, and knackered his foot and his tournament in the process, he’d have been pilloried for being reckless or lamented for his misfortune; either way, England wouldn’t have been much better off. Obviously he might have won the tackle and not crocked himself, but given the amount of nonsense his foot had taken in the preceding months, and the elevated status he occupied in the England team at the time, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he wasn’t up for taking the risk some eighty yards from goal. From a wider perspective, sometimes, cowardice makes sense.
And what if a player does get injured? However brave it might appear to play on through the pain, for a player to ignore or sublimate the impact of an injury on his ability to perform is to prioritise his own concerns — his reputation, his cojones — over those of the team. Injured players don’t play as well; that’s why they don’t tend to start. So brave as their perseverance is, it will usually diminish the team. The Hemingway model of bravery — personal ignorance or derision of consequence working to enhance performance — can have exactly the opposite effect when considered through a wider lens, through a less personal prism. Consider everybody’s favourite Twitberk, Rio Ferdinand. At home to Middlesbrough in April 2007, he sustains an injury shortly before half-time. He looks to the bench. Alex Ferguson clenches his fist: man up, Rio. Soldier on. Be brave. And so Ferdinand bravely loses Mark Viduka at the near post, Manchester United drop points, and the match reports the following day proclaimed “Advantage Stamford Bridge”. (It’s okay. There was a happy ending.)
I do not mean to mock or diminish individual acts of bravery; they are as admirable as they are far beyond my foppish ken. What I mean is that what looks brave from a personal perspective may damage the team; what makes sense if we consider football as vaguely analogous to a bullfight — an individual expression of bravery, artistry and accomplishment — makes no sense when we view football not as a story of individuals but as a story of a team. Where you, the player, the matador, are broken, bruised or below your own best, get out. The most admirable thing Harry Kewell ever did was signal to the bench in the 2005 Champions League final: I know this is the biggest game of my career, I know this may be as good as it gets, but I’m diminishing the team; stop me, before I start trying to be brave.
* Before we go any further, then: obviously, people have very strong opinions of whether bullfighting can be considered brave in itself; most of those opinions will be sourced from a distaste or disgust for what is increasingly seen as a ritualised and sadistic act of animal torture. Without wanting to have that debate, the point is that there is a perceptible quality of bravery that varies from bullfight to bullfight, from matador to matador, such that experienced observers (which I assuredly am not, and Hemingway assuredly was) are able to discern a distinction. It makes intuitive sense to suggest that any act requiring an assessment and an awareness of risk to the self — which bullfighting clearly does, whatever its moral provenance — can be carried out in a variety of ways that can be diagnosed as more or less brave.**
** Even if you don’t accept that, and assert that bravery in the pursuit of an immoral end cannot be considered true bravery, I would suggest that getting into a bullring requires a quality so similar in all amoral respects to that which we commonly call bravery as to make no practical odds for the purposes of discussion. I mean, there’s a fucking bull in there.