Rudiger and Son play like they love football, and that’s important
Players like Antonio Rudiger and Son Heung Min play with a style and freedom that speaks volumes about their love for the game.
The moment came in the first half of the Premier League game between West Ham United and Chelsea in December, when the ball fell on Antonio Rudiger who, despite being clear of the West Ham goal which made the sequel optimistic, attempted a shot on goal which bulged hopelessly over the crossbar, before to run mischievously back to his correct position, laughing like a naughty schoolboy himself.
Football, we can all agree, takes itself too seriously these days, but a slow slide over a few decades has normalized what we should really consider beyond parody. The Champions League has an anthem, as if UEFA were a nation state. Before the start of Premier League matches, when the teams enter the pitch, the referee takes the match ball from a ceremonial plinth, like an offering to the football gods, but upside down. The music from Soccer Saturday is serious enough that you would half-expect Jeff Stelling to announce that war has been declared on China rather than tell us about Carlisle United’s third goal at Harrogate Town.
The Championship play-off final is the £200m game while the FA Cup languishes because success can increasingly only be construed as money, while history, tradition and continuity’s lack of intrinsic value makes it redundant. We are even reaching a tipping point where competition matters less than size, when it comes to deciding who can play top-level European club football. A little something has to be thrown at the wealthier clubs. Otherwise, they could pick up their ball and go home.
So in all this gloom – it’s fair to say we live in a society that is increasingly honing its ability to get angry and take it all in bad faith – a player who can let that mask slip for a moment, someone who looks like he’s doing nothing on this goddamn earth that he’d rather be doing right now than playing football, feels like a palate cleanser. Antonio Rudiger’s delighted face was a welcome change of perspective from the egotistical, slick, grumbling faces that monopolize the back pages of our newspapers and our television screens.
The same goes for Son Heung Min. The speed of accelerating with the ball at his feet, the finishing and the unerring ability to choose his strike partner like on radar is all very well, but it’s the extent to which he plays as if he loves football that makes really make him stand out. It brings a sense of freedom and exhilaration to the way he plays. When he breaks through a defense to complete a pass, space opens up in front of him, and even the incredible athleticism has to take precedence over the style with which everything is put together.
There have always been players who it just happened being extremely good at football but had mixed feelings about the game. David Batty is the example that always comes immediately to mind, most likely because his rise to the top of the professional game came at a time when football was becoming fashionable again for the first time in decades, which meant the background noise often sounded like an arms race to declare fandom.
But even that can be charming to see. Gareth Bale could be annoying Real Madrid right now (and everyone knows pissing off superclubs is fine for a little low humor – sorry guys, but that’s just the small price to pay for all that gain), but there’s no doubt that living his best life. It’s not that he doesn’t like football; it’s just that when he’s not playing, he prefers to play golf. And given that at 32 and with a history of injuries, he is well and truly into the fall of his playing career and is probably comfortable enough to shrug his shoulders in the face of outbursts from the Spanish press. Football clubs trivialize players; it’s their whole business model. There is nothing wrong with this dynamic being upset from time to time.
But the footballer who plays the game like he loves to play the game is a joy forever. They are one of the most important links between the team and the fans, and the fans instinctively know who they are. They are confident enough in their ability to allow themselves to smile.
There has long been this idea in football that there has to be some kind of cruelty or some kind of physical pain to be successful, as if that’s the sacrifice a player has to make to reach the top of the game. but it doesn’t have to be that way. Frowning and puffing out your cheeks like a bull waiting to take on a matador works for some, and it’s not like those players aren’t liked too. Fans like this level of commitment. But the players who like the game are immediately recognizable because we recognize ourselves in them. It’s a different kind of commitment, but it’s still valuable.