Small Margins of Truth

By Will van de Wiel  |  04 Feb 2015

Dive; no dive. Handball; unintentional handball. Red card; yellow card. Consider the countless tiny margins in elite sport, all subject to the bias and interpretations of the beholder, as time and space are sliced and diced in a multitude of ways by a multitude of eyes – a truth just as valid for events off the sporting field as those on it.

After an autumn draught of autobiographical remonstrance and self-justification tickled old enmities into a desinential whirl, the cold question of betrayal and decency has gusted through us all. Rio Ferdinand, Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Kevin Pietersen all are – or were – titans in their sport; and all have been regarded with a mixture of horror, disdain, and yet, lurid fascination, as they proffer the glossy sides of their hardback stories.

In Ferdinand’s case, there was a clear moral revulsion from journalists and commentators that he had dared besmirch a man who had failed at his job. No matter the column inches devoted to scurrilous speculation during the timeframe in question, Rio be damned for not keeping a dignified silence about David Moyes. And how dare Keane, Pietersen and Ferguson continue their own, distasteful, self-justification? Cue supercilious smile and sardonic wink – of course; they are just trying to sell books.

I find the type of sanctimony and projected motives which met the release of these books just as ugly as the – largely unsurprising – narratives that underpinned them.

Firstly, we should acknowledge that, just as in politics, for reasons of self-preservation and harmony, there exists a form of collective ‘dressing room’ responsibility in sports – an inviolable sanctity of conduct which gives a team a vital bond of trust and, with it, a certain freedom to be yourself. No matter the inner dissension, all public utterances must show a unified front. Any transgressions or leaks otherwise are therefore not only punishable, but deserving of the ire and ostracism which may follow. But as humans profit by experience, for something which – like a cabinet or football team – is in the public consciousness, there comes a time when this collective responsibility expires.

Why? Because liberal democracies are founded upon the notion of free speech, and what good is an autobiography without subjective candour? If Rio Ferdinand has something to say, then he should say it. Reality is constructed, understood and perpetuated by mankind in the form of stories, and truth exists not as an absolute, but as an emergent tapestry given its colour by the intertwining of individual threads.

The more threads the better. So if I buy Rio Ferdinand’s book, I want to read what Rio Ferdinand was thinking. I don’t want some PR-vetted, image-pimped, banausic description of Rio Ferdinand and his life at Old Trafford. I don’t want him to shy away from sharing information that may lower someone’s value in the eyes of the public; I want to know what was going through his mind, bitterness and all. I want to know of the genuine struggles – mental and physical – that he has been through.

I want to know precisely the extent to which Ferdinand did value David Moyes. If Ferdinand, piqued at being told he wasn’t quick enough by the Scot, sublimated his anger at his own decline into a dislike of Moyes, then let us infer that from his own portrayal of events. And if that did happen, if – shock horror – a highly competitive sportsman was struggling to come to terms with his own decline and was in denial about it, then he is a brave man to be honest about his response. But if you read it and say, ‘He’s just angry because he was dropped so ignore everything he says about Moyes’, you are really imposing your own moralistic interpretation and using that as a reason it ought to be denied to others.

Much was made of his ‘bitterness’, as if bitterness – more than say, happiness, or sadness, or any other emotion bound to flavour a man’s perception – had robbed Rio of his ability to form his own thoughts on what went wrong at Old Trafford after Alex Ferguson left. But to get an idea of the squad dynamics, the emotions underpinning Rio’s assessment of David Moyes – or, say, Roy Keane’s anger at (read: obsession with) Alex Ferguson, or KP’s fury at England and the ECB – are not just valid but essential in order to gain at least a semblance of the truth. Even if events are distorted by feelings or bias in the mind of the rememberer (as most things are), they are legitimate precisely because they demonstrate the lasting impression of the events on that mind.

The stakes are high in elite sport. Any man who puts himself forward for the rewards is well aware of the nature of failure’s sting. But success and failure are not sold equally; while we are quick to broach the subject of decency in the latter, seldom is praise decried for being too gushing, or deification for being constructed too freely. David Moyes was lucky enough to be ‘the Chosen One’; but no crown comes without a proportional burden of scrutiny.

You might feel sorry for David Moyes because he wasn’t quite up to the job, or wasn’t ready for it. But if he had been a success and won the league, no doubt the inner workings of that success – much in the way Ferguson and Jose Mourinho’s triumphs are public property – would have been chronicled, packaged and sold to all.

Moyes has a right to reply with his own book someday, to add his own thread to the loom of truth. Should he keep quiet because anything he says about Ferdinand – or the club – may be seen through the prism of the defender’s comments, or, more flagrantly, his own failure? Of course not; if Rio had kept tight-lipped, Roy Keane and KP too, no one would have learned anything, however depressing those lessons may be.

Sportsmen and women’s fractures mostly stem from ego frustrations, and the reason controlling superstars is so difficult is that in order for them to function they have to be kept at a sweet spot of confidence, self-belief and other richly individual – and competitive – competencies, whilst at the same time subsuming the personal for the collective.

They are not machines; a great deal of effort goes into winning an inch’s advantage on the field of play. Which brings us back to small margins. Sportsmen are vulnerable to superstition and rituals, like, say, eating low-fat chips on a Friday – something Rio Ferdinand offered as one example of how things were different under David Moyes (and the first thing Ryan Giggs changed back when he took over).

Now, out of context, it’s easy for people to sneer and label these social realities as petty, but value is attributed to them by those involved, and every man takes on the tone of his surroundings. What Rio was really talking about was the removal of a ritual of trust; something homely and familiar to them, swept away in the brutal winds of change. We are, all of us, susceptible to comforting routine in everyday life; and given the importance of a sportsman’s mental well-being, the impact of something which smarts in this way should not be underestimated.

Footballers are easy prey for journalists because there exists a substrate of envy and anger, fomented daily by differing reportage. The concepts of ‘money’ and ‘footballer’ have been primed so staggeringly towards the negative, and built upon such a concatenation of pejoratives, that every foible, every earthbound whim, is juxtaposed, either consciously or subconsciously, with their high wages. The equation is too devastatingly simple. But footballers do not determine their own pay packets; that value is calibrated by the game’s popularity.

In fiction, film, poetry or any other medium that offers up a mirror glass for the soul, it is evidence of humanity’s most powerful interior episodes that influences us most profoundly. And where else does a man reveal himself but in the animosities, be they petty or otherwise, deserving or underserving, towards his fellow man?

I imagine the great thing about being a sportsman who spends pretty much their entire career in a media strait-jacket yet has their lives, personal and professional, endlessly, daily, speculated upon, judged and prostituted by other people, is the appeal of telling your own version of events at the end of it. People who think these rich, high-profile men (for whom ego cultivation is not just natural but necessary) do it purely for the money are wrong; what we are really talking about here is men and their reputations, and any man who fortifies his own reputation will often need to do so at the expense of others. It’s a fact of life; witness Ferguson’s desperation to distance himself from Moyes’ decline with October’s addendum.

Of course, reputations are often most harmed by what you say to defend them, but you can decide for yourself whether you like Alex Ferguson or Rio Ferdinand or Roy Keane or Kevin Pietersen by reading their books – hate them; love them you’re free to choose, but don’t begrudge them their words.

The only common feature for journalists complaining of boredom in press conferences then crying foul play at a sportsmen’s ‘petty’, ‘classless’ version of events at the end of their career, is the placing of themselves above everything they see. If anyone is qualified to judge, and feels the need to, then let them do it with as little ego, but as much information as possible. For not only are the margins of interpretation small, but the outcomes exponentially powerful.

Will van de Wiel is a producer, writer and editor whose work can regularly be found in The Green Soccer Journal.
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