The modern game

Where egos dare

August 12, 2012
By Alexander Netherton

Thirteen years ago, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes had to be coaxed out of Manchester United's dressing room to take part in their team's Champions League title celebrations.

John Terry
GettyImagesJohn Terry was at the heart of Chelsea's celebrations in Munich

Since then, times have gone and changed. At the end of last season, John Terry and three other Chelsea players arrived on Bayern Munich's pitch in full kit, ready to celebrate a win in a final that they, like Scholes and Keane before them, had been suspended for. It was as if they'd played. Except it was definitely also, at the same time, as if they hadn't.

At the European Championship, you'd have been forgiven for missing the actual football with the amount that people wrote about the ideological imprint of Spain, or the way Ronaldo was out to get to the record books first. In football, the egos have landed.

Beyond the clear differences between Terry and Keane, the contrast here is between working to win for your team and seeking out the free dinners and invitations to exclusive award ceremonies that come with creating a personal legacy. Without a website or Twitter feed, you are nothing. Appearing in the photos in ten years' time looking as though you played in a glorious win can now be said to be just as important as having actually played in that glorious win. Pulling your kit on after the game is the new 'working your socks off'.

It's pretty much time for the big question: would Terry also have joined in the celebrations - insisting on being joint-first to lift the trophy - had Bayern Munich won the Champions League final? All signs, dear reader, including the prevalence of this joke at the time, point to yes. It was close to sociopathic to have worn the kit and lifted the trophy, to look as if he played, but the only truly shocking thing when it came to the big man's actions was that he didn't rub some mud from the pitch into his kit for extra verisimilitude.

If only Terry was alone. He wasn't even alone in attempting to secure himself a place in the football pantheon on that balmy Munich evening. Didier Drogba also fancied himself a piece of history, asking, as he did, to take Chelsea's fifth penalty rather than their third, as had been assigned by his manager. No matter that the shootout could already have been lost by the point he would take his turn, this heroic figure knew that his last kick of a ball for Chelsea shouldn't be just any kick - it should be the European Cup-winning kick. How did he know? Because he was destined to be a Chelsea idol: The Great Didier Drogba.

It perhaps began in earnest with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo, in 2008, was Manchester United's chief penalty taker, and a reasonable one at that. When it came to the penalty shootout with Chelsea, though, he went shocking, and missed. John Terry - this time insisting on taking the money shot and adjusting his armband on the walk to the penalty spot - subsequently fluffed his lines by fluffing his run-up. Once victory had been completed, the rest of the United team ran to celebrate with Edwin van der Sar, whereas Ronaldo collapsed into a teary solo heap. While you might argue his sobs were of triumph, a more compelling argument might be that it was simply relief that he wouldn't be the man with a black mark in the footnotes. Always the legacy.

Mini-Ronaldo, Eden Hazard, took this self-regard to new heights earlier this summer. First, he trailed his transfer months ago, declaring he would move to England. His flirting started with an early rumour of a move to Spurs, until he bundled them into their cold shower of realism, luckily for him, as their Champions League challenge went to pot. Manchester City became his team of choice, and then United, the focus being less on his career than on column inches; for each new club, there would be new stories. A man less obsessed with cups perhaps than his own Google page-rank, Hazard of course elected to join Chelsea in the end, but only after a full two days of incessant Twitter wibbling. Which self-respecting club would allow a player to announce his choice on Twitter rather than the relative dignity of a press conference? The answer is none, but Chelsea were happy to degrade themselves in exchange for two years of service before he does one to Spain.

Gareth Bale
PA PhotosGareth Bale: The brand

Gareth Bale does the same. Like chicken and egg, it's hard to work out if the Bale-to-Spain rumours came first or if Bale started coquettishly suggesting he might be interested in a theoretical move. When football rumours' provenance starts resembling a study in semiological creations, things have gone too far. Add to this that truly tiresome trademark celebration, and there's a man with a career plan, the dead-eyed nonsense foundation of the 'Me Generation'. Shouldn't football be about the clubs we support, at least sometimes?

It's not just a club thing. At Euro 2012, you couldn't move for Ronaldo's ego. A make-up artist to put his hairs - presumably not just the ones on his head, given his total commitment to perfection - in exactly the right place, then a celebration set against Messi, just so we knew he was outdoing his great(er) rival.

Moving marginally east, the Spanish were in thrall to their own notion as creating not just a part of history but a game discrete from football. This was no longer about scoring goals - it was about their attempts to define morality, coming across as 20 less humble Arsene Wengers, all quite calmly assured not just of their technical superiority but their moral qualities too. The fact that they made such an enjoyable event of the final only highlighted their self-regarding stubbornness in every other match that had preceded it.

It won't get better, either. This is football now. If goals are overrated and de trop, then soon we'll be left to fight over which team has the biggest ego.