The internal life of players and the art of the autobiography
One of my earliest memories is of my father – I believe it was him and not my mother, although I become less sure as I write this – opening the door to our backyard. The ball at my feet is what changes the way I see the grass in front of me: transformed from land and space first into a field, then a pitch. I sense the shift in meaning. I am leaving my subjectivity into a consensus derived from the outside world. The consensus extends to what can, should and must be done in this meaning-field.
Even as we attempt our first dribble, we exist in the long shadow of excellence cast by great footballers. As we encounter the obstacles to our success on the field – instantly, and in most cases, decisively – we understand that our immediate superiors are only locally excellent, lower actors of a script encoded in the body and brain of the best.
As I passed through my teens, shedding a focus on the possibilities of the body permanently for a brain-life like billions of others, I had some awareness that a select few – that most awesome elite of early childhood – were going the other way: towards athletic triumph. There was the flaring up of professional opportunity at the fringes of my awareness – rumours of trials granted to older friends of friends – but that was a proximate boundary. Beyond it were the ultimate footballers, competing at the highest level, and the next generation preparing to take their place.
The football autobiography – through its few successes and many failures – is one way that the vast majority of people with no experience of the professional game have a window into that other life. Football writing is covering the whole terrain of the knowable in the sport: data, history, tactics and so on. But the football autobiography is our attempt - and I emphasise the agency of readers because the motives of footballers in recording their lives are various, and partly unknowable - to breach the experiential, existential question of football.
What is it like to be a footballer? The question might come to the autobiography reader directly and early, pressures and frustrations leading to fantasies of greater lives. Or it may come later: after decisions are made that have shaped the form of your life, after the awareness of linearity and consequence that accompany a sense of a life, as opposed to the purer, earlier experience of living.
Autobiography is an outgrowth of the premise that wisdom accompanies age, and the impulse for autobiography is often connected to a gathering sense of mortality. Benvenuto Cellini, the sixteenth-century Italian artist, wrote that “all men… who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand; but they ought not to attempt so fine an enterprise till they have passed the age of 40.” Inflate upwards for life expectancy across the centuries and the early age at which most football autobiographies are written is even more striking. Within the history of football itself, the football autobiography emerges as a product after the era of relatively intimate contact between fans and players: well into the image-era, and in a culture where talking about oneself is understood as a right, if not a requirement.
The dreaded ‘golden generation’ of English football (c.2001-2010) – we now use that term as a historical reminder of the period’s self-regard – was arguably the apex of awareness of the football autobiography as a discrete form; the era that most seemed to define and be defined by the vanity, emptiness and commercialism apparently inherent to it. This yielded a perception-legacy that most autobiographies are acts of self-indulgence. Ashley Cole (aged 26), Wayne Rooney (21), Frank Lampard (28), Steven Gerrard (26), John Terry (26), Michael Owen (27) all released their books in 2006, a World Cup year that affirmed not only their failure as international footballers but how much less international football mattered to them than their non-English peers.
More fundamentally, and even outside the chronologically narrow commercial remit of a celebrity footballer, the early-life launch of the football autobiography makes a clear statement: the portion of my life that matters most – the self that possessed the necessary distinction to put a name to a story – is now over, and the rest is an ellipsis: unworthy of telling, or selling. Many of the post-career books seek to make contributions to broader societal issues: see Paul McGrath’s 2007 book dealing with alcoholism, or Rio Ferdinand’s second book, a 2017 account of grief.
The reader and the footballer diverge towards the end of childhood. We share experiences of childhood and of being a child footballer. After that, the touch of glory planted in us grows separately: we remain permanently and vicariously attached to the highest expressions of pure feeling that football offers, that chance to snatch back a taste of childhood from age, but the pursuit of those feelings becomes the content of footballers’ lives. To “put away childish things” as Paul enjoined in Corinthians has long been the defining premise of age. But to be a footballer is to keep childish things close by. A footballer is kept like a child: told what to do and not do, eat and not eat, say and not say. Their bodies are obsessed over medically, their movements restricted, their attention circumscribed. These are lives that continue to be defined by the circumstances, structures and emotions of childhood well into adulthood.
The autobiography shows us what this means. The footballer’s life is divided into moments of desperation, anticipation and expectation, and heartbreak or joy. Relations with peers are often not significantly more developed than they are in the nursery: a zero-sum binary game of charmed embrace or vicious dismissal and rivalry. Everyone else either facilitates or denies your joy and prosperity. So intensely do footballers rely on others for their own happiness – agents, coaches, managers, peers, fans – that there is little possibility for the kind of sovereignty that is associated with adulthood.
The universalisation of football as a rule-bound enterprise has been one of the most successful projects of globalisation in history. Everyone wants to play exactly the same game so that distinction within it is universally recognised. It might well be more advantageous to be a feudal lord than to win at the game of capitalism, for example – to rule privately over terrain and extract local resources even if remote cultures (or your own people) resent or oppose you. But even the vainest of people (and even psychopaths like Uday Hussein) understand that unshared, unacknowledged triumph in football is hollow. The only victory is universally acknowledged, internationally ratified. This universality was built on the foundation of a centrally generated, and initially and crucially, English-based system. But it is also a manifestation of the development of universal standards generated by globalisation: ways to locate and position yourself, and your community or nation, along a global scale.
We navigate the personality of the footballer on this scale, too. The autobiography is already competing with the immensity of the role that footballers play in the global consciousness merely by doing what they do. Footballers are not only celebrities - not only heroes, idols – but among the most intimately observed of their kind: they are monitored more closely doing what makes them famous than most other celebrities. Everyone who watches football carries an image-deck of impressions and perceptions of footballers built up and inflected over years, combining the intimate spectacle of anguished, spitting, delirious faces with detailed and fickle moral impressions.
The autobiography is partly an attempt to reclaim – or vainly validate – the self-conception of the footballer through this exposure. It is a response to this accumulation of existential close ups – all of this information exposing people tested to their limits as athletes, the innumerable intimacies born of watching football on television, the image-character and image-narrative of athletes distilled to their dramatic essence, their purest engagement with struggle. The challenge is to demonstrate and legitimise the personal life separate from this persona: inherently less interesting and mysterious, and beholden to contempt because of this inferiority, the failure of the person to live up to the footballer.
These connections bear some resemblance to the impersonal and abstract love, or worship, that people feel for idols or prophets: undimmed by the lack of exclusivity in that relation, basking in the glow of other people’s simultaneous attention on your object of focus. The sense of shared centrality that watching football provides is one place where you locate yourself in the world of others.
The antagonism towards football autobiographies also reveals a sense that we don’t want rich people writing books, unless they explain how to get rich: and that today entails using the mind, not the body. Writing books has become a way to ennoble poverty, to find pride in resisting the vulgarity of wealth – and rich people want to ruin that too? We understand almost all wealth derived from mental activity to be legitimate: it gives us the illusion that the means can be passed on through knowledge, undergirded by the democratic premise and promise of capitalistic meritocracy, which does not extend to the aristocracy of the body.
The particular focus on the ghost-written nature of the books is further reflection of the footballer’s moral unsuitability to wealth. I recall conversations with an intelligent family friend as a child, where – perhaps also triggered by the implication that footballers possessed a particularly male brand of stupidity – I would ready a response for when she would come over at the weekend and football was on. She would inevitably launch another broadside at the ignorance of these ball-kickers, and I would reply, with the smug satisfaction of prepared verbiage: “They might be stupid, but you can’t play football.” I knew I would never be a footballer, but I felt that even observing them entailed a chance to justify myself through them.
Instead of being drawn to the banalities of the football autobiography – the self-involvement, oceanic boredom, inevitable linearity, prefigured patterns of goals and matches and seasons, resort to onomatopoeia to describe the sensations of playing – I am compelled by a deep sense of the vulnerability of the inarticulate. At a time when so many of us are equipped by education to repeat generic arguments in the humanities - where innumerable quantities of essays and papers exist just to provide some shared proof of our intellectual status and merit as a form of social currency – our knowledge of the physical world is relentlessly outsourced, to specialists ranging from medical experts to climate scientists to plumbers. Football is a skill we demand access to but also revel in casually dismissing the significance of. We need to feel both inferior (we are only spending our time on them because they are so exceptional) and superior (we do things that actually matter and don’t get paid enough for it) to footballers.
The poet and critic William Empson wrote that “life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that cannot be resolved through analysis.” Roy Keane resolved his own contradictions as a player through direct action. But his treatment of autobiography is immersed in duality, more precisely than contradiction – beginning with the fact that he has produced two of them.
Keane’s complex and intriguing second book (The Second Half, 2014) begins with a brilliant moment of meta-anger that flashes the complexity of authorship in the football autobiography into relief. The attempt of Keane’s first book (Keane: The Autobiography, 2002) to establish the supremacy of his own narrative over his image failed: the headlines that accompanied the book were “a nightmare” for him. What was intended as “an upbeat book, on the back of qualification from a tough group and a good campaign [in the 2002 World Cup in Japan]” instead exposed him to media and FA charges of “bringing the game into disrepute by committing a premeditated assault on [Alf-Inge] Håland” and “profiting from” his description of the infamous tackle. The fallout was “physically tiring”, affecting Keane’s sleep and appetite.
Keane was used to details being decisive in the context of a football match, but here, he was cursed by the inclusion of two words in his first book, “(I think)”, that outlasted the moment in which they were produced through print: “The ball was there (I think).” Prior to a hearing, Keane contemplated telling his ghost writer Eamon Dunphy to say directly that the tackle was not meant to injure Håland, but refrained: “I wouldn’t embarrass him by saying something as simple as that.” Key to Keane’s attempted defence when questioned was that the book was ghostwritten. But Dunphy testified that he had no doubt that Keane meant the tackle. Keane had no choice but to accept Dunphy’s response: “As the ghost writer, he was supposed to have been, I suppose, in my mind, as he wrote the book. I’m not blaming Eamon – at all. But he didn’t help… The legal and logical arguments were never going to work: I had a ghost writer who put his own style across.”
The power balance at play with outsourced authorship is on display here: both the reliance of the footballer on the author owing to the lack of his own voice and the essential subservience of the journalist to the footballer. The only response Keane had the agency to implement was hiring Roddy Doyle – apparently untroubled by the potential licence a novelist might take with the task of telling another’s story – for a second book.
Keane’s process of self-accounting is fascinating: it is as if summoning anything to his mind in the moment produces an intense desire to wrestle with its significance, painting over the lacquer of previous and external impressions. “Do I regret what was in the book?” he asks himself, after asserting that “the two words in brackets cost me about four hundred grand.” “Probably not, because I’d approved it before it was published. Did I focus on every word? Obviously not, because I don’t think I would have put in ‘(I think)’. Did I try to injure Håland? Definitely not.” That’s that, then. But wait. “But I did want to nail him and let him know what was happening. I wanted to hurt him and stand over him and go, ‘Take that, you cunt.’ I don’t regret that. But I had no wish to injure him.”
Another subject related to Keane’s sense of duality soon comes into play: something between fairness and justice. “Yes, I was after him,” he says of Håland. “I was after a lot of players, and players were after me. It’s the game.” This intellectual explanation of emotional discomfort also extends to his tunnel confrontation with Patrick Vieira: “I just felt they were bullying Gary [Neville]. I don’t think it was intimidation; it was bullying. There’s a difference… In football, intimidation is legitimate but bullying isn’t.”
The interview that led to Keane’s end at Manchester United, which Alex Ferguson transformed into one of the year-zero power resets that maintained him as more essential to United’s success than any one player, is another instance in which Keane’s anger exceeded external boundaries he discovered when expressing it: “I was annoyed, I remember, but I wasn’t edgy about it. The idea that I was in the studio, ranting and raving – no, it was quite calculated.” As he later says: “I went to see the manager and Carlos [Quieroz, the assistant], and I apologised. But now I kind of wish I hadn’t. Sometimes you feel a justified anger; sometimes you feel you’ve done something wrong. I apologised: ‘Listen –’ But afterwards, I was thinking, ‘I’m not sure why I fuckin’ apologised.’ I just wanted to do the right thing. I was apologising for what had happened – that it had happened. But I wasn’t apologising for my behaviour or stance. There’s a difference. I had nothing to apologise for.”
Keane’s attachment to duality lies in the impossibility of his full immersion in one perspective: “I understand that when you publish a book you’re selling something; you’re selling part of yourself”; “It was work, but don’t like the label ‘pundit’. I don’t like being labelled, generally”; “But I had to grow up. I couldn’t be expecting to be working with Irish people”. Celebrating a victory as Sunderland manager, he spots Pascal Chimbonda, who had been dropped for coming in late that morning, “jumping around” amid his victorious players. “And I’m looking at him, going, ‘You fucker, you can’t even let me enjoy the win.’”
The space between action and reflection is, thrillingly, never fully clarified. Keane’s account of his sudden physical assault on the Reading coaching staff after a defeat as Sunderland manager is a painful glimpse of violence as a form of weakness: “Whether I was reacting to the pressure… I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d have a go at [Kevin] Dillon even if we’d been top of the table.” (Keane pre-emptively justifies the attack by forging the implication that Dillon called him a wanker, since he failed to refute the charge: “I say, ‘Are you calling me a wanker?’ And he goes, ‘Well, you’re always on at the referee’”.)
These outbursts should be paired with Keane’s ruminations on failure, an experience that would recur more often in his managerial than playing career, but was rooted in psycho-emotional premonitions and insights: “It’s about dealing with the disappointments. It’s not the highs. There are so few of them. It’s the defeats, the injuries. Great careers carry massive disappointments… It was one of my biggest weaknesses. Dealing with the disappointment, and the self-loathing that comes with it. I didn’t get over it quickly. I couldn’t. I’m not sure that the greatest sports psychologist in the world, working with me 24 hours a day, would have had much of an impact.” One of the most revelatory single details in the book, which shows how viciously moulded the joys of footballers are to the disappointment of their peers, emerges when Keane reveals that discovering on a bus journey that Bolton had equalised against Arsenal, paving the way for a likely title win, became “one of the highlights” of his career.
After Keane leaves his managerial post at Sunderland following a period of struggle, Dwight Yorke, a former United teammate he had later signed, sends him a text wishing him “all the best”, and he responds by telling Yorke to go fuck himself. “I saw him a few years ago,” Keane reflects, “… but there was no real conversation. And it’s sad, because I had great days with Yorkie. I could have handled things differently.” Keane stands at the foot of anger: it is a kind of totem under which he resides and an unreliable source of guidance. His contemplation of anger as a subject per se comes to an impasse: “I’ve looked at my anger for what it is. It’s just anger; I won’t beat myself up about it… There’s a difference between anger and rage.” The “cartoon image” of himself could be “used to [his] advantage”, but that process could “backfire”, “become exaggerated” in the process of transmission and consequence.
All of this is compelling stuff from a man who mastered the expression and implementation – but not the art – of anger. That was his ultimate nemesis Alex Ferguson’s art to master, as everything from his dismissal of Keane to his own highly impressive narrative mastery demonstrate. The only limit to that mastery was that Ferguson did not generate true affection – rather than admiration or respect – for his achievements.
There is a bracing extremity to Stan Collymore’s 2004 book, Stan: Tackling My Demons, which features massive egoism and a combination of honesty and the presentation of its absence. The terrain shifts from self-regarding claims like “if clubs failed to get the best of me, that is their failure”, to pure ugliness, like the celebration of coach Ray Train’s heart attack: “One day, I thought God had smiled on me because Ray keeled over and had a heart attack on the training pitch. Right there in front of me. It felt like divine retribution… I had never been so happy in my entire fucking life. There was no possibility that he might die, but at the very least we would be rid of him for a few months. He didn’t die. Little fuckers like him never do.” (Train is still alive at the time of writing.)
In more introspective, almost stream of consciousness passages, Collymore’s narration is somewhere between a Chad Kultgen character and Albert Camus’s Meursault: “An Asian guy came up to me on Fifth Avenue and asked if I was Stan Collymore. He had a Puerto Rican girlfriend and they wanted to have their pictures taken with me. That was a little bit of a boost.” He moves between a passive observer of his own tortured consciousness and someone through whom feelings and moments pass. Regarding his then girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson, Collymore says: “I’m beginning to hate her now. I’m beginning to really dislike her. I love her desperately.”
Self-awareness and honesty even about the lack of it is one of the more compelling features of the more conflicted personalities in the form. As Martin Amis wrote in his memoir Experience, “And we all have to do this, at some point, we all have to come out of the room we have sent ourselves to.” Some of us stop at the stairs. The discrepancies in self-awareness across the autobiographical canon speak to the experience that we share in observing others: how some people remain stubbornly averse to self-understanding and others sink or rise through their capacity to understand themselves.
Peter Shilton’s autobiography reaches towards the pole of self-unawareness. He states that he wrote the book as a response to “many incorrect comments and statements” made about him – so far so normal: score-settling is a core impulse of the form. But his claim that he wants the reader to “know the true story, in all its glory, with all its warts” is not exactly borne out in the text.
Shilton claims that his “inability to handle [his finances], not [his] lack of ability as a manager” has prevented him from managing in the Premiership. He proceeds to boast about persuading the Plymouth board to offer “old pal and former teammate” John McGovern a “decent salary” to become his assistant. He then condemns McGovern for being uncomfortable with Shilton’s inability to pay back a £7,000 loan and taking a job at Rotherham. The absence of McGovern’s narrative and the lack of serious introspection regarding the cause of Shilton’s own financial problems (which included poor investment in racehorses and gambling) comes across as agonisingly minor, a window into self-harm magnified by success, and compulsive behaviours that generate their own protection from sources of insight.
Craig Bellamy’s book (GoodFella, 2013) reveals a character and career initially propelled by drives that needed to be robust to introspection. But these drives also brought him to the brink of self-sabotage. There is a neatness and relief that comes with certain mental shifts that he takes to unburden himself and channel his intensity. “The fear of not winning a trophy, of even losing games, had taken over my life. When you let go of those kinds of things it is amazing how relaxed and calm you become. I won a trophy with Liverpool a few months after all this partly because I was at peace with the idea that we might lose.”
Even in a trophy-driven business, success is a matter of perspective, and the significance of victory or defeat is never resolved through a final consensus – either at the highest or lowest level. Both Jermaine Pennant and Stan Collymore assert themselves as successes, to combat the contrary general impression – itself formed among people who, perhaps smugly, assume they would have ‘made the most’ of talent and opportunity in the game. “I didn’t underachieve. I overachieved. I had a great career… The fans of the clubs I played for loved me. That will always mean more to me than any one of the medals that public opinion has deemed the arbiter of success in a footballer’s career,” says Collymore. Jermaine Pennant asserts that: “People always ask me about my career and the first question is: should I have done more? The truth is that I’m very happy with my career and what I’ve achieved. But I know 100 per cent that I could have made more of myself and my ability, definitely made more of my career.” After it has been unfulfilled, in hindsight, potential becomes a badge of honour.
Patrick Vieira, on the other hand, is a model of control and perspicacity. He had the strength and presence of mind to start looking beyond himself right away. “Arsène [Wenger] understood how well the team worked together. When he changed it, he did so slowly but surely”; “not only our manager, but also much of our team was now foreign so it was probably inevitable that a passing style would dominate”; “The English go at you physically but they don’t talk to you much; that’s their mentality, their culture.” His comments about his rivalry with Roy Keane might not be the whole picture – Keane is a difficult man to characterise in total – but they are penetrating: “He wants to put pressure on [his opponent], and place him in a situation where he gets all steamed up. The fiercer the midfield battle is, the more at ease he becomes. I soon cottoned on to his game and after that it didn’t bother me. On the contrary, I loved it.”
Frank Lampard’s Totally Frank (2006) ends with an actual CV: that’s how professional it is. And that secure and beaming professional pride rests on a nearly untrammelled experience of success. As difficult as it is to imagine someone with Lampard’s personality being unsuccessful, the book might have been fascinating in that imaginary frame. Instead, it is a reflection of the banality of winning.
How straightforward this statement is in hindsight: “I could leave Chelsea or I could become a better footballer. I decided to become a better footballer.” Far from the claustrophobic ecology of interpersonal relations that haunts autobiographies of partial or complete failure, Lampard’s accounts of his peers, and José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich in particular, are glowing. Admonishments are rare and diplomatic. Regarding Cristiano Ronaldo’s actions during the 2006 World Cup match against England: “To make it worse, Wazza and Rio have always spoken of Ronaldo in a very positive way. They are mates at Manchester United. Mates? I can’t understand why he would behave that way. If someone commits a bad tackle or an offence for which they know they risk being sent off then fine, you accept it. But to actively canvas for someone to be dismissed – especially a club teammate – that’s out of order. Ronaldo is a great player and there was no need for him to behave that way.”
Lampard, an Englishman, came up during a time of expansive openness within the Premiership and relative openness in English politics. Among other things, these remarks reflect a principled failure – rooted in the subjective superiority of being English, derived from an objective sense of the importance of England in determining what the world has become – to understand how important it is for players from far less powerful (or powerless) places to compete at the international level. (“Playing for England can be the best thing in football but it can also be the worst. There is little better feeling than representing your country and doing well. However, you’re often pitted against smaller nations in potentially mundane games and if you are not completely aware and sharp then you can get punished,” says Lampard. In a June 2018 interview, he put it simply: “I wouldn’t put [playing for England] above playing for Chelsea… Playing in the Champions League final for Chelsea, I don’t think could have been surpassed by playing in the World Cup final.”) They are also a reflection of how much more significant the club bonds that English players of Lampard’s generation experienced were, in a context where the influx of international players allowed English players to become elevated through the vehicle of the Premiership.
That Lampard took a more proactive role in engaging with the press (“I regularly read a variety of newspapers”; “A friend in the press called me a couple of days earlier and told me it was definitely him [Mourinho to replace Ranieri]”) is testament to his relatively broad sense of the game beyond him – built on his family legacy, intelligence and mental balance. It is no surprise based on this early book that he would become a manager – like Vieira’s, and unlike Bellamy or Kieron Dyer’s, for example. There are limits to that external awareness, of course: just when his account of being on Abramovich’s yacht feels like it cannot get more tedious, Bono shows up (whom Frank is “in awe of”). He writes of meeting Nelson Mandela that he was a “real celebrity”, framing a figure incomparable to him within familiar terms.
More subtly, Totally Frank – through the tone, pacing, distribution of focus across sentences, incremental development of thoughts, strong internal narrative and sense of what is outside it – convincingly (though indirectly) portrays a man for whom arriving late into the box as a unique selling point was a logical development. The slight additional creativity of that motion reveals Lampard’s underlying lack of freewheeling inspiration at the highest level as a player, as much as it demonstrates a quiet insight into the game and his place in it.
Even so, the fundamentally cerebral and team-oriented nature of Lampard’s play remains relatively opaque, a complex manifestation of his own commitment to self-development. A man as rational as Lampard can only describe taking a penalty in terms that any outsider would produce: “the silence inside your head, the pressure mounting with every step” is far less than what smell is to taste, or an image to phenomenological reality: it is more like a tale from an inconceivable time. There is probably no way to make those of us who develop through the incremental accumulation of skill and experience in conditions largely sheltered from the ruthless decisiveness of chance understand what it is to be reduced to - defined by - moments. Understanding is not even the appropriate mode for those who experience this terror.
One aspect of the football autobiography that reliably produces sympathy concerns the body. In modern western cities, the scope of the body has largely been reduced to sex and preparation for sex – or showing preparedness for it – through exercise. The football autobiography, however, reveals the alienation from the body that comes from using it as your primary tool of work, and having the peak decade of your body not be defined by laxness in relation to it (with a gradually increasing awareness of problems to come), but relentless tussling with its boundaries.
“You have to place your bet and hope you don’t lose everything,” as Zlatan Ibrahimović writes. At least he has fundamentally won that bet, which is what allows him to justifiably assert that “nobody knows your body better than yourself.” Kieron Dyer’s book could make no such valid claim. It is a document of shame, anguish and boredom with the failure of the body: the miasma of perennial injury, of being repeatedly subject to medical interventions of mixed success; the futile pretence of not having a torn hamstring and then “crying all the way to the physio’s room” when the body exposes the lie. Dyer writes that “by the time I realised that I needed to look after myself better, the damage had been done to my body” – and that was in his late twenties. His injured body appears as an alien presence inserted into a previously familiar one. That Ibrahimović line is tested across autobiographies routinely, not just by the expanding terrain of science, with its promise of extra-personal certainty, but by players themselves making the right decisions about preparation, rest, and when to have the strange mixture of courage and fear to refrain from playing at key times.
Keane initially makes sense of his bodily fragility through a kind of self-dialogue: “Funnily, I think being stiff suited me. I had tight hamstrings; it was just the way I was. That tight feeling suited my personality; I don’t think I was meant to be too flexible.” But his commentary regarding his dilapidated hip during his Celtic tenure is tough to read. He is ultimately forced to admire Ruud van Nistelrooy’s decision to sit out a cup semi-final, which he initially lashes out against: “I was thinking he was the fool, but I think now that I probably was. I played, and my hamstring was fuckin’ killing me… Ruud ended up playing in Spain till he was 39, and he still looks 21. And I thought he was the idiot.” So alien was the sedentary life to Keane that in the first few days of management, he swings around on his swivel chair, “pressing different buttons” on the phone, “trying to get the right line.”
Football can reveal forms of intelligence outside of the process of edification inherent to books. Ibrahimović is a manifestation of Spinoza’s assertion in Ethics that “no one has hitherto laid down the limits to the powers of the body… no one knows how or by what means the mind moves the body, nor how many various degrees of motion it can impart to the body, nor how quickly it can move it.”
Ibrahimović’s greatest experiments in expanding these powers beyond the point of presumed limits are permanent testaments to the possibility of awe in football. And his wonderful habit of passing great balls into space that no one is running into challenges us to reverse the wisdom regarding culpability for a missed pass. His style renders the mind/body distinction illusory. “It’s my head that is playing; I just need my knee to follow,” he said in a November 2018 interview, but the stunned joy he expresses in celebration, particular to the detail of each miraculous goal, reveals that his body sometimes seems to surprise his mind.
Ibrahimović’s actions on the pitch are inscribed with wit, which survives into speech and print. His search for novelty and idiosyncrasy is not only relative to others but himself: the search for moments that not even he could repeat is what animates him.
Andrea Pirlo, a player of effortless sublimity, fails to clip his own wings in an amusing, episodic autobiography. I Think Therefore I Play (2013) is one of the football autobiographies most like a memoir, with Pirlo’s brilliance (and the medal count validating it) leaving him free to observe – usually with light-hearted sentimentality – the figures around him. (“I consider myself particularly fortunate: I know Antonio Conte”; “I sat down with Alessandro Nesta: friend, brother, teammate, roomie. A man with whom I’d shared a thousand adventures, and about as many snacks.”) Regarding his own visionary capacities, he can only match the mystery with words: “They’d all got it so wrong: I didn’t have the slightest intention of behaving like a superstar. The truth is a lot simpler: that’s just how I was made. I was acting on pure instinct, not riding a flight of fancy. I’d spy a pass, the chance to bring out a trick or an opportunity to score and it was already done. I’d outpace myself, especially when it came to thinking… It’s more a question of geometry than tactics. The space seems bigger to me. It looks easier to get in behind - a wall that can easily be knocked down.” These are straightforward comments on a phenomenon - talent - that is only opaque insofar as it is not taken at face value.
One area of special insight, and contrast to the English books, regards the extraordinary emotional and aspirational cohesion of the Azzurri, a team that famously responded to the internationalised intrusion of rule systems upon their native institutional practices twice (1982, 2006) by winning the World Cup. Deeply entrenched Italian traditions of individualism, familial kinship and localism have resulted in national coherence on the level of international football. This is testament to the deep need for the international validation of national distinction (through affirmation or defiance of your place in the global order) that resides in all nations in some form, for which football provides one of the great arenas. “It’s no coincidence,” Pirlo says, “that such overwhelming emotions come from wearing the Italy shirt. Blue’s the colour of the sky, and the sky belongs to everyone.”
The pre-existing audience for a football autobiography offers more room for exploration and explanation than most lives are granted. There is tedium in these books, but they offer a chance to commit to memory experience that would otherwise be deemed unworthy of transcription: a small resistance to the dominance of the book by academic or journalistic specialisation.
The power of the form to explore the now small number of lives not framed and processed by formal education - and to make the book resist being utterly dominated in authorship and subject by the formally educated – has been attenuated by the narcissistic sinkhole of social media, but could witness a resurgence with particular players and texts in the future.
The book, however, is in many ways a bad fit for a footballer’s life, resistant as these lives are to cohesion - and meaning beyond the terms given by the sport. There is no moral or intellectual pressure to add to the body of work explaining football, in a universally accessible and usable format, having played it well; younger players simply take over and knowledge survives and evolves through coaching and science.
Football is not the total of a string of fixed pasts: it offers an endlessly unfolding future with unlimited opportunities for redemption and creativity, and footballers are individual carriers or agents of that future. Every action committed in the future of football alters its past. That is partly why the football autobiography has failed to establish a meaningful body of work that transcends the sum of its parts – it seeks to set down anchors in a sea of constant overturning.
As Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy (written earlier in his life than many football autobiographies): “Perhaps – thus [Socrates] should have asked himself – what is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent?” This is an important inquiry when contemplating what footballers do, and how to write about it, either externally or autobiographically.
There is very little in the canon of the football autobiography that can approach the mystery of Juan Román Riquelme, which was so compelling to me during his time at Villarreal that watching him play was more like a drama of personal and universal significance.
His taciturn nature has extended to the absence of an autobiography. But what would it be for? He expressed his solitude through a refusal to adjust to the game at the highest level, the demands of which would have violated his unnamable purpose in playing. He set up the whole team around him to support his own isolation: his search for the ultimate through ball to release him from the exigencies of needing to interact with others altogether. The group of players with him waited for his next epiphany: giving him the ball was like a question posed to a diviner, another coin tossed into a fountain. The tax for the expression of Riquelme’s private pain was that everyone else had to nurture it.
Johan Cruyff’s 2016 autobiography My Turn – a notable exception to the early career book, and closer in spirit to the old vision of Cellini alluded to earlier – is the book that comes nearest to perfect contact between life, playing and thinking. This is perhaps unsurprising, but no less delightful, coming from a man who made much of the light by which we now see the game.
When I finished Cruyff’s book, I saw his trademark celebration – the private satisfaction in the arc of the arm turning in the air, propelled by a leap from the ground, signalling the closed circle of a problem solved and another to be embarked upon – and the whole of not only his book but his life is present in me.
The transmissions that have been made in us by footballers are like their own memories: endlessly pliable to the needs, conditions and yearnings of the present moment, for inspiration or the confrontation of pain. What makes it hard to accept that they can have the last word in print is that their play still lives in our minds, as if it is just about to happen.