Je Pense, Donc Joey

By Oscar Pye-Jeary  |  18 Feb 2015

Joseph Anthony Barton occupies an unusual space in the national consciousness. It’s not the space he’d like to occupy, admittedly – that space is already filled by Eric Cantona – but as the self-appointed warrior-philosopher-king of mid-table journeymen, he’s certainly closer to it than he’s ever been. Whether you agree with his particular pearls of bite-size wisdom or not, it’s hard not to see his reinvention from scrap-happy ex-con to an introspective student of Nietzsche, Orwell and Hitchens as worthy of at least grudging respect. But then grudging respect has never been a trait universally admired of football fans. There remains a palpable sense of dismissiveness towards Joseph and his Amazing Skeptic-thorough Dreamscope, the common view being that he’s still basically a bit of a pillock, spewing out received wisdom, regardless of how versed his detractors might be in its nuances themselves.

The culture of English football has always contained an anti-intellectual streak, be it mere amusement at the literary bent of Roy Hodgson’s fantasy dinner guests, or the more pernicious bullying of Graeme Le Saux for reading a paper with a conspicuous lack of tit per tat.  The attitude towards opinionated players like Barton, however, can’t simply be written off as inverted snobbery. After all, it’s not like the popular portrait of the dumb footballer is hallowed in comparison. If Wayne Rooney were to claim an extensive knowledge of Kant, because Luke Shaw shouts it at him whenever he misplaces a pass, the England captain probably wouldn’t find himself lauded for his down-to-earth everyman-ism.

Cantona’s own high-minded aspirations were in fact readily accepted, though largely because they were already part of the package. He was sold as the thinking man’s footballer, and we got our money’s worth. Yet even his image was overcooked, with every utterance beyond platitudes elevated to a kind of impenetrable mysticism. His famous “seagull/trawler” offering was a rather straightforward analogy in truth, but one which the press and public at large apparently took great pleasure in deliberately failing to understand. One suspects that even if he’d put it in plainer terms – “when the vultures circle a carcass”, for example – it would’ve still been received as incomprehensibly opaque. “Possibly something about the cyclical nature of death and rebirth, but who knows? He’s a mad genius!” If Andrea Pirlo suddenly revealed a deep appreciation for Barney the purple dinosaur, many would likely rush to re-appropriate it as some kind of ironic hipsterism.

Foreign imports and long distance man-crushes adhere to a slightly different standard, though. Cantona is held in far lower esteem in his native France, where his particular brand of eccentric rebellion is viewed, in some quarters, as divisively as Barton’s. Domestic football is often far less forgiving of its outspoken natives, and increasingly so in England. We don’t seem to want footballers to confound our expectations anymore. We’d prefer them to conform. To most, players can only occupy the one categorical space, so if Barton was a thuggish dolt in his early years, and occasionally still plays like one, his newfound enlightenment must surely be cod. QED.

This same kind of mental packaging applies within the game, too. We frequently decide the standard of a player early in their career, and augment our perceptions of their “permanent class” and “temporary form” to fit, but it’s still most aggressively demonstrated in public life, where sportsmen are often deemed to have little remit. Any outspoken or opinionated player will inevitably be harangued for expressing their views, by people who do nothing but, on social media platforms built specifically for that very purpose.

While the frequent lament on the lack of “characters” in the game may be as much about nostalgia as it is fact, what truth it does hold is inexorably fuelled by our unwillingness to tolerate any.

George Best, Charlie George, Peter Storey, Paul Gascoigne et al may have been loved for their exuberant lifestyles once upon a time, but are clearly incompatible with a world in which Jack Wilshere causes a storm by having a fag on his holidays. The modern elite player is no longer able to be the kind of guy who pops out post-match for a swift one with the fans, but even if he was, he’d probably be drummed out Peggy Mitchell-style by the very same people who bemoan this cultural shift.

The most suitable avenue for communication these days is online, yet the FA – and clubs themselves – are actively cracking down on any player who commits the cardinal sin of acting like a regular person. Players are being coerced into blandness, with anything beyond banal pleasantries or thinly veiled corporate promotion at risk of being interpreted as mischievous unprofessionalism.  What’s more, the fans are complicit. Every over-zealous reaction leads to media scrutiny, and another reason to clamp down on anything resembling a human expression.

Despite the constant media obsession, we don’t seem to actually want footballers to be people. We want them to be FIFA characters. Virtual pixels whose entertainment we’ve paid for, but don’t want cropping up again once we’ve turned off the console.

Footballer or not, that would be an unusual space to occupy for anyone.

Oscar Pye-Jeary is a freelance writer who has previously contributed to GQ and Football Fancast. He has recently finished working on a book for Vogue dedicated to the life of Giorgio Armani.
Carnaval de Paris Remembering Yalta