Myths and Legends

10 Apr

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen The Wire in its entirety do not read this piece.

The story of my great uncle Nikos is a much-told story in my family. Fighting for the British in the Second World War, he was captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner of war camp. Through sheer bloody-mindedness and ingenuity, he managed to escape his captors and found sanctuary in Greece thinking that being amongst fellow Hellenes would keep him safe. He hadn’t accounted for collaborators and he was soon re-captured and suffered at the hands of the Nazis. His survival instincts however, were unquenchable and he broke out for a second time, spending the rest of the war hiding in Switzerland.

He lived to tell the tale and I’ve always been proud of the fact that we had our very own Steve McQueen in our family regardless of how little he wanted to revisit the experience. Nikos’ story has been told and retold by assorted family members and as is the case with Greeks, the story has gone through a number of revisions and embellishments with the passing of time. When it’s my turn to tell the story to my children, I’m half-tempted to include a period of time in ‘the cooler’ replete with baseball mitt followed by a retreat across the Alps in a souped-up motorbike. However, the art of myth-making is about sticking as close to what actually happened as you can without actually lying.

In that respect, the modern footballer is unable to forge his own myth and those enthralled by him are robbed of the opportunity of yarn spinning. Football being a fully paid-up member of the ‘celebocracy’ is more reliant upon gossip and innuendo than ever before. With every move on the pitch and beyond pored over with increasing voyeurism, the days of the footballer as mythical cult hero have surely passed (in the Premier League at least). Witness the implosion of Wayne Rooney’s ‘myth’ this season.

A lot of media coverage has been given over to Rooney’s expletive-laden address to camera this week and the moral panic has focused on his systematic failure to fulfil his ‘duty’ as a role model. As he fairly pointed out, he certainly isn’t the first or last footballer to be caught swearing on camera but the greater damage is his breaking down of the ‘fourth wall’ that separates players from television viewers. Moreover, the fact that everything he does, both publicly and privately is so scrutinised, his status as a ‘hero’ will forever be denied him. He may be a star of the game but the camera lens robs him and the fan of a certain cultural mystique that allows us all to recall and retell stories of his deeds to ensuing generations. Rooney is documented, labelled, recorded and analysed and as a result, his myth is eroded with every snarl and curse. In many respects, his story has imprisoned him and it’s no surprise that his anger sometimes spills over. The romance of that 16-year old debutant who fearlessly put Arsenal to the sword seems a very long time ago. There’s too much water under the proverbial bridge.

It was much simpler when the cameras weren’t always omnipresent. A case in point comes in the form of Robin Friday, commonly known as ‘the greatest footballer you never saw’. Friday was one of football’s great underachievers, plying his trade for Reading and Cardiff City in the 1970s, an era when cameras weren’t to be found at every ground in the country. Tales of him turning up drunk for games, kissing policemen and grabbing opponents’ crotches have been handed down from those who witnessed the events first-hand but the human memory being a highly subjective piece of machinery, naturally allows for greater magnification of what might have actually transpired. Or perhaps not. But isn’t that the great thing about storytelling?

So when we hear tales of Friday being greater than Cruyff and Pelé, or removing statues from graveyards or turning up for a team meeting with a stolen swan in tow, the myth naturally grows. Friday sadly died in squalor in 1990 at the age of 38 but the interest in him remains, simply because we have not had the advantage of publicly scrutinising him throughout his short career and life, which is very much in contrast to Rooney.

In wider terms, perhaps my favourite mythological hero of modern times comes in the form of The Wire’s Omar Little, the gay stick-up man and modern-day Robin Hood who roams the badlands of Baltimore, robbing from the heinous drug-dealers of the city’s projects whilst showing kindliness to those at society’s sharper end. Throughout the show’s five seasons, Omar’s mystique grows as we see him develop into the stuff of legend, appearing and disappearing into the night, like a vengeful phantom. Children play at being him on the street during impromptu games of cops and robbers whilst the man himself plays out the role of Western outlaw strolling at high noon to encounter adversaries and lives to highly precise and moral codes more in keeping with the samurai of Japan rather than the blood-spattered streets of the Westside. His death towards the end of season five only perpetuates the myth, as his demise (at the hands of a scared child and witnessed by no-one else first-hand) is greatly exaggerated by corner boys who transform it into a pastiche of Butch and Sundance’s fabled last stand.

Omar’s myth was greatly enhanced for me on a personal level during my honeymoon in 2009. Throughout the duration of our American trip, my wife and I jokily came up with hypothetical situations in which we would meet cast members of The Wire on our journey. With three days to go, in a drugstore (we appreciated the irony) in New York, it happened. Out of nowhere and just like his fictional alter ego, Michael K Williams (the actor who plays Omar) appeared before our eyes. The three of us chatted briefly, took photos and then he was gone. Nina and I spent the rest of the day roaming Greenwich Village in a glorious reverie. As you can imagine, we’ve got a lot of mileage out of that encounter, but what’s more notable is that that it’s the re-telling of the story rather than the pictures that generate most interest in our friends.

I like the idea of myths in football and beyond. While I walk a fine line making this statement as some may deem the word myth a close relative of untruth, there is something magical about hearing a tale but not having access to the footage to prove it. That’s not to say I would have ever given up the opportunity to see Gascoigne’s thunderbolt against Arsenal in ’91, but scrutinising the banality of his breakfast regime or his wife’s daily attire negates the myth created of him.

In Rooney’s case, there will never be a myth and in many respects that’s sad. His slow downfall that commenced just prior to last year’s World Cup that has only recently seen a resurgence in better form can never be untold or undocumented. With the anger and aggression he has recently shown both on and off the pitch, I wonder if there is a part of Rooney that wishes he had been born in another time. Where his prodigious talent and footballing myth could be somehow protected from the all-seeing eye of the camera lens and instead animatedly described by those who might have been lucky enough to see him in the flesh. Alas, I will never know unless our paths happen to cross as randomly as mine did with Omar.

Dispatches has had the honour of being nominated for the EPL Talk Blog of the Season. If you would like to vote for it, click here thanks.

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5 Responses to “Myths and Legends”

  1. Tony M April 10, 2011 at 21:45 #

    Though I have long enjoyed your blog, I have never been more in awe of you than I am now. In my eyes it makes you even cooler than your great uncle. If that had been me, I’d be crowbarring it every sentence I speak. Of course that would mean sacrificing the ability to communicate coherently and speak intelligibly but that would be a small price to pay. All in the game though

  2. Shaun April 11, 2011 at 19:46 #

    A very nice read. Also worth noting that I’m pretty sure part of Omar’s code of honour was that he didn’t use profanity. Maybe my memory is playing tricks with me but I’m pretty sure that was the case.

  3. Outside Mid April 11, 2011 at 22:23 #

    I’m glad I blew through the disclaimer about The Wire and read anyway. Brilliant and felt this way for a bit.

  4. joel April 12, 2011 at 09:13 #

    another cracker my man.

    I have always felt that Rooney is not in the same league as Cantona, Law, Best, Giggs etc. These players never considered themselves bigger than the club and whilst Best and Cantona are known for their on/off the field incidents it was still just a tiny blip on otherwise majestic and inspiring careers.

    Ferguson is struggling to tame this beast and whilst the fans bemoan Berbatov and his attitude he is quietly doing his job and is the leagues top scorer.

  5. floodlitfootball April 12, 2011 at 18:35 #

    Great read. I’m not sure that Rooney cannot become mythical with time, just because footage of his every step (and misstep) is available. Though I get your point about it being inescapable. I think his actions will go a long way to shaping how we view him in 20/30 years time. As a poster above mentions, Giggs will go down as a legendary player in part because his career is shaped by his on-field displays and record. He doesn’t have many examples of off-field distractions, or poor temperament, which colours how we view him. Depending on how Rooney’s next ten years go, will shape how he’ll be remembered as a footballer and person.

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