As a lifelong non-combatant in the field of competitive sports – I blame the contempt-inducing secondary school character-building ethos – I just watch the major fixtures and then only on TV. An annual dash of Wimbledon, the odd international rugger game, a few strokes of the Open, quite a lot of the World Cup and so forth. It recently came to my attention that a Cup Final was to be played in the new Wembley stadium so I eased onto the sofa with a modicum of interest. There followed an exceptionally dreary match that inevitably became slightly engaging towards the very end when it seemed that somebody ought to score within the next ten minutes in order to preserve both sides from ridicule.
Drogba popped one in quite niftily for Chelsea and excitement was widespread. As the team and their people danced around the pitch a BBC1 reporter with an ear-piece and mike barrelled into the fray and clamped his free arm round Drogba’s neck. He positioned the crook of his elbow so that it was adjacent to Drogba’s nape. Then, shouting dementedly, he asked Drogba how he felt. The footballer, exhausted, elated, speaking in his second or even third language, clearly wanted to celebrate with his team-mates and enjoy the adoration of the crowd. With visible and reluctant effort, he told the reporter how incredible he felt and how amazing it had been and so forth. The reporter, sensing the restlessness of his captive, sought to detain him by blurting out another question, a minor variant on the tiresome the ‘So how do you/did it feel?’ form.
Drogba, struggling to be diplomatic, hesitated, started one or two sentences, glanced longingly at the crowd and began a short but surprising speech: he thanked his parents for all they had done for him. Suddenly we were at the Oscars. Drogba had slipped into the wrong format. Under duress from the cartoon character in whose arm-lock he languished, the Ivorian had unwittingly revealed the leakage between two worlds of high profile performance. Both worlds generate stars and both are premised on teamwork. In the movies only one star in one hundred will ever acknowledge the collective nature of the film enterprise and that’s only at award ceremonies. In football, however, the word ‘team’ is still widely used. Someone scores a goal because his team-mates set it up for him.
Nevertheless, the forces of marketised individualism gravitate towards such notions and cluster around them, nibbling, buffeting and wearing them down in favour of isolating the heroic figure. The only team that heroic figures will acknowledge, it seems, is the Mummy & Daddy Organisation. “It is they who have enabled my heroism. I prostrate myself at the foot of their warm pedestal.”
The heroising rays have, of course, bathed many a footballer in starlight. It’s clearly confusing, though, to the extent that the idea of there being different types of hero is dissolving. All heroes now achieve the condition of the filmstar, even if they are not filmstars. The scope of heroism is narrowed, probably to make it appear more readily attainable. It may be the case that heroes themselves are confused: by their relationship to the collective, which they are increasingly encouraged to overlook, and their sense of themselves as performers who are treated as actors.