“Can football still be considered a sport? Or is it something else? It possesses characters, narrative, plot. It attracts more attention for what happens on the field rather than on. The game still continues, of course, but the edifice around it suggests that sport is just an aspect of what football has become. Is it, in fact, sports entertainment?”
Recently I wrote a flippant piece imagining a pop culture mash-up of sorts between football and professional wrestling. Since then, two things have happened that have compelled me to stretch this comparison further, like some poor sap trapped in a Crippler Crossface.
Firstly, I read an article by Rory Smith in The Blizzard, quoted above, which posits the theory that contemporary media coverage of football has unwittingly thrust the game into the realm of sports entertainment, the term with which pro wrestling is synonymous.
Secondly, Paul Scholes emerged from retirement to dust off his boots, to stage an unlikely comeback for Manchester United…
I used to watch wrestling. Like squabbling brothers we no longer get along, despite their playing a vital role in my formative years. As a naive child I cheered for the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. As a teenager I matured during the ‘Attitude’ years of Stone Cold Steve Austin and D-Generation X. As a young adult I marvelled at the curious hinterland where scripted drama and legitimate conflict overlapped. As such, I have often viewed different forms of entertainment through the prism of this bizarre, often misunderstood world, where scripted beefs and simulated sport combine.
The return of Paul Scholes made so much sense and yet so little sense at the same time. Viewed through ginger-tinted spectacles, it was a romantic, heroic return of a legend, and a sensible addition to a depleted midfield. In purely football terms, it seemed perfectly logical. But something about it roused the slumbering wrestling fan within me. The style of the last-minute announcement, with United’s players not finding out until hours before the game, smacked of the sort of stunt booking one would see in wrestling, where eleventh hour interference from an outsider is a staple trope. When Scholes leapt from the Etihad substitutes bench to pad back on to a competitive football pitch, it may have lacked the dynamism of, say, The Undertaker announcing his return from a lengthy hiatus by riding in on a motorcycle. But in terms of its shock value, the way it changed the game, and it’s drama as a spectacle, the two events made for convincing, if unconventional, bedfellows.
A more pragmatic view would have it that it undermined the confidence of the rest of United’s midfielders. Darron Gibson saw the writing on the wall that he frequently missed during shooting practise, and left the club to join Everton. Ravel Morrison has decamped to West Ham, where his prodigious talent will war with his self-destructive streak in a battle for his footballing soul. United may well prove better off without them both, but if Scholes was what finally ushered them to the exit, it was akin to dumping a girl by kissing someone else in front of her – thrilling yet tactless, and lacking a certain class.
Another surprise was that it begged the question – why do so few footballers turn their back on retirement? Wrestlers are notorious for finding it hard to walk away, unable to leave behind an all-consuming lifestyle that sustains them. Mick Foley famously retired from wrestling in 2000, only to return weeks later for a lucrative WrestleMania pay day, where he retired again for real. In January 2012, he was confirmed as one of the 30 participants in the Royal Rumble event. Ric Flair continues to wrestle to this day despite numerous abortive attempts to retire, having first laced up boots in 1972. Occasionally footballers change their mind when it comes to international retirement, with the results ranging from the sublime (Zidane in 2006) to the sub-par (Carragher in 2012). In time we may look back on the comeback of Scholes and see it as a groundbreaking event, the moment a door was opened to shed light on retired players, who may wonder what their bodies and minds may be capable of after a similar break.
In the case of both Foley and Flair, as with so many others, their inability to step away from the limelight succumbs to the rule of diminishing returns. Earlier triumphs are tainted by shambling, inept attempts at reliving long-distant glories. The early signs for Scholes (and passing completion statistics) indicate that the comeback could prove a masterstoke. If his level of performance should wane, it would betray the send-off he was given last May. Scholes’s final game was the Champions League final against Barcelona, and despite a comprehensive 3-1 defeat, there was a scrum amongst Barca players to swap shirts with a player identified as one of their spiritual kin. Andres Iniesta won, and it seemed like a symbolic, if somewhat belated, passing of a torch, with Scholes ceding the limelight as Iniesta enjoys his peak years.
It is rare for a wrestler to return from retirement with renewed vigour, but one example springs to mind. Shawn Michaels was forced to retire in 1998 due to a debilitating back injury. After five years of convalescence he returned, and stunned the industry by being as good as he ever was in his prime, winning the World Heavyweight Championship. Scholes may yet prove to be like Michaels, and leave people ruing his absence rather than malign an ill-judged return. If anything, Michaels bears comparison to Scholes’s team-mate, Ryan Giggs. Both men were considered too old, and yet still too good. Both men (Michaels’ five-year hiatus notwithstanding) experienced similar career trajectories. They both emerged as flying, precocious pin-ups, with talent to burn. Growing older, they became mainstays through consistent performances, particularly in the big matches. As they aged they continued to raise the bar by modifying their game, whilst showing their employers up for failing to promote new talent to replace them. (One exception is in their proclivity for scandal; Giggs maintained a monastic lifestyle throughout his career, until his much-publicised affair and subsequent waving of a futile, skyward fist at Twitter for besmirching his name. Michaels’ career was the exact inverse, with a tendency for controversy eventually eroded by the spiritual lure of born-again Christianity.)
If Giggs is football’s answer to The Heartbreak Kid, then it’s because they share common ground in a founding principle in wrestling – the gimmick. A wrestler’s gimmick is their personality, the manifestation of character, the thing that makes them stand out from the rest. The ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase arrogantly flaunted his wealth on the way to the ring. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts would terrorise opponents and fans alike with a live snake. The Gobbedly Gooker was a man dressed as a giant turkey, who would go on to embody the phenomenon of ‘wrestlecrap‘ by hatching from a giant egg.
Just as the most interesting wrestlers have the best gimmicks, so do the most interesting footballers. Increasingly, the media pigeonhole football personalities of interest according to their own, easily identifiable USP’s. In this era of homogenised, media-trained bores, anybody that bucks the trend by demonstrating personality are exalted out of proportion, and are considered oddities, rather than just the lone, sane voices in a world awash with tedious, rent-a-quote post-match interviews. Mario Balotelli is an enigmatic, child-like buffoon. Joey Barton is a Nietszche-quoting reformed thug. Harry Redknapp, to his evident consternation, is seen as a cock-er-knee spiv. Craig Bellamy blends genres by casting himself as a sort of philanthropist tosspot.
Scholes’s gimmick was almost subversive in it’s anti-gimmickness. His on-field persona eschewed the passion of the box-to-box midfield general, or the bombast of the tricksy winger. Scholes was a no-frills performer that found the spectacular in the mundane. Keeping the ball, savouring possession and carving a few feet of space from mere inches became his art. He was the footballing equivalent of a solid mat technician, such as Bret Hart or Chris Benoit. Both, like Scholes, were utterly bereft of charisma, but more than made up for it with peerless technical acumen. Scholes was technically magnificent, the footballer’s footballer, just as Benoit was the wrestler’s wrestler. Both men were throwbacks, publicity shy, rarely giving interviews. They were devoted to their vocations in the purest way possible, in wanting to excel without wishing to discuss it, in seeking the kudos of approval without courting it. (Here the comparison ends, as Benoit’s career and life came to a tragic end.)
His bad tackling has become a lazy comic trope used to deride him, whilst simultaneously managing to overlook the fact that he got away with an awful lot, despite the occasional red card. In this regard, you can also see a likeness to the late Eddie Guerrero circa 2003. His gimmick at the time was captured by his catchphrase, ‘Lie, cheat, steal’, and would see him living up to that mantra by doing whatever it took to win, without compromising his ‘good guy’ status. Similarly, Scholes’s tackling, which veered wildly from the clumsy to the barbaric, was dismissed with an almost-universal chuckle because – bless ‘im! – he was rubbish at tackling, wasn’t he?
In short, Scholes spurned the very notion of showmanship. While we all know that wrestling’s not sport, just as in the field of acting, the best in the business are the ones that can convince you that it’s real. The best ones are good talkers, and can hold court on a microphone, trying to convince you that they really do intend to pulverise their enemies. The best promos are the ones that ‘talk them into the building’, (see CM Punk, Paul Heyman and Jake Roberts) drawing in rapt audiences desperate to see the denouement of a bitter feud.
After Scholes’s return, a disappointed Roberto Mancini spoke to ITV’s Gabriel Clarke, who pressed him for a response regarding Vincent Kompany’s contentious red card. Undeterred by Mancini’s reticence, Clarke pushed and pushed, rephrasing the question, desperate for the Italian to get himself into trouble. This is what the media has made of pre- and post- match interviews, turning them into antagonistic, inflammatory wrestling-style promos. They are no longer solely intended to extricate news on whether a left-back’s groin strain has cleared up, but to extract exclamations of war, digestible, ready-for-air soundbites that stoke the fires. Journalists and broadcasters poke, probe and agitate, mining spite.
Nowadays, interviews tell the stories which feed the narrative of the match. Rafa Benitez pulling out a slip of paper to angrily recite his infamous list of “facts” regarding Sir Alex Ferguson was the equivalent of Benitez telling Fergie that he was gonna lay the smack down on his candy ass. Kevin Keegan’s “I’d love it if we beat them” address is remembered now, in the light of his ultimate defeat, as the sign of a man descending inexorably into madness. At the time, he was telling Ferguson (That man again! The cerebral assassin! The dirtiest player in the game!) that he was gonna take that championship belt from around his waist, and watcha gonna do, brotha, watcha gonna do, when the Toon Army runs wild on you!!! (History also forgets how Sky Sports cameras cut away just as Keegan ripped off his t-shirt and flexed his muscles inanely, like a ‘roided-up chimp).
In football, just as in wrestling, the storylines are just as important as the matches themselves. The preamble to ITV’s coverage of Manchester United’s visit to Liverpool in the FA Cup dwelt on the thorny backdrop of Luis Suarez vs. Patrice Evra. When Wayne Bridge faced erstwhile love rival John Terry on a football pitch for the first time after their very public personal feud, the image of Bridge refusing to accept Terry’s handshake took on the gravitas of, say, Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant sizing each other up before battle. In both cases, this was wrestling-style promotion for the purposes of football. Smith gave the example of how, the morning after Barcelona eviscerated Arsenal 3-1 in the Champions League last season, the papers focussed on Arsene Wenger’s accusation that the referee killed the game: “The beauty of Barcelona was relegated to second billing behind the whisper of illusory controversy.”
It is this notion of illusory controversy that made the return of Scholes so bizarre. That a player so averse to publicity would court the idea of doing something so outlandish in the face of such anathema was entirely at odds with the man that everyone thought they knew. Perhaps this is the most encouraging thing about his return. By allowing his sheer enthusiasm for the game he loves to overcome such an instinct for shyness struck something of a blow to the edifice surrounding football, as cited by Smith at the top of this article.
To quote Smith once more: “Everything, in football, is heightened. Reality is not enough, so it is expanded, meaning is extrapolated, significance is assumed.”
This is as true of Paul Scholes as it was for Adam Bomb…