Most footballers might be justifiably written off as knuckle-dragging, groupie-banging perma-adolescents, but there are a few, albeit a very few, who think on their feet, engage with the world around them and, for better or worse, use their unique position to express a range of political views.
One such player is the provocative Oleguer Presas, the mercurially gifted and suggestively bearded Barcelona defender. A true favourite of the fans – the embodiment of the prickly and opinionated Catalonian spirit – Oleguer endeared himself to them forever when he said “Catalonia is a country and Barcelona is its army”. A firm Socialist and courageous enough to jeopardize his career with inflammatory statements, Oleguer’s prime motivation in life seems to be philosophical, not financial. Within the world of professional sports, it’s an almost profane stance. Playing innumerable charity matches and plugging along in his VW van, he cuts a strange figure against playboys at the Camp Nou such as Deco and Ronaldinhio. However, Barcelona has a strong tradition to lean on, legend Johan Cryuff himself famously speaking out against Real Madrid’s past associations with the Franco regime.
Affiliating himself with the squatter’s rights movement, Oleguer believes “occupying a house that has been empty for years and used only for financial speculation is a legitimate human right.” Can you imagine Frank Lampard offering his thoughts on anything other than his own contract status? Fat frank is at present negotiating a deal to move from £115,000 a week to £135,000. So, he clearly has other things on his mind. In fact, most footballers do not seem to realise they are living in a world with other people – this can be illustrated by seeing pictures of Phil Neville’s house (dig that ‘banquet of the dead’ dining room). So fearful of expressing themselves, of showing a personality that may be liked or disliked (thus jeopardizing shirt sales), footballers have concealed themselves behind the autistic ‘take-each-game-as-it-comes’ meaninglessness of interview speak. Happiness for the modern footballer is a plot in Essex, an X-box and a handjob from a teenager. Typically, the thoughts of Oleguer’s idea of Utopia are more interesting: “it’s not important whether or not you get there, but that you are satisfied with the journey you take.”
Oleguer is not alone, there are other players out there who are able to put things in perspective or at least engage with things more cerebrally challenging than sport. Damiano Tomassi regularly donated half of his earnings to charity. Gaizke Mendieta is known as an astute music enthusiast, writing on emerging talents for the Spanish music papers. Alexi Smertin’s favourite author is John Fowles, and, anecdotally, I have heard found himself by chance outside the author’s home, plucked up the courage to knock on the door and was treated to a 2 hour audience with the famous writer. Of the political set, ex-A.C. Milan legend Zvonimir Boban rescued a Croatian fan who was being beaten by Serbian police and spoke frequently about the injustices of the Balkan conflict. Smarter-than-he-appears Robbie Fowler allied himself with the striking Liverpool Dockers via a T-Shirt slogan in a European Cup Winneers Cup tie in 1997. George Weah is due to have a second tilt at becoming President of Liberia in the next elections. Revolutionary sympathizer and Inter Milan stalwart Javier Zanetti recently convinced his teammates to contribute £5,000 each to the Zapatista rebels in Mexico. Putting his self-regarding Stamford Bridge colleagues to shame, Didier Drogba got down on his knees on live television begging for a ceasefire in the civil war that was tearing apart his beloved Ivory Coast. And, as ever, Diego Maradona wades in. Bosom buddies with both Castro and Hugo Chavez, he refers to George Bush, always, as “human trash”.
One philosopher of the game, in every sense, is Brazil’s beguiling Socrates, politically active throughout his career, the ex-Doctor is now one of football’s key thinkers regarding the form and development of the sport. A special mention should be set aside for Pat Nevin, the ex-Chelsea and Everton striker (as well as a pal of the late John Peel), who appeared on BBC’s Late Review discussing with fluency his appreciation for James Joyce. Anyone who doubts his intelligence should read his cracking autobiography, ‘In Ma’ Head Son!‘, written by psychologist Dr George Silk.
Of course, there are others who have used their sway more misguidedly. A few seasons ago Ex-West Ham favourite Paolo di Canio got into the nasty habit of flinging out a fascist salute every time he scored (luckily a dwindling occurrence at S.S. Lazio). Although distasteful and ignorant, it’s somewhat reassuring to think that he is at least thinking, however stupidly. If only some of the current batch of English players would stretch themselves a little and offer their loyal followers something like charisma. To know that the 22 players have something going on up top clearly makes them more endearing figures. If only they had the motivation of Oleguer, who, as he admits, just can’t keep his mouth shut.