Professional Russ Abbott lookalike and advert man Joe Hart has been doing the rounds on Twitter this week, in the form of two Vines that have caused amusement and bemusement in equal measure.
One shows Hart’s eyes widening in apparent excitement as he shakes hands with Andrea Pirlo after Italy had beaten England on Saturday. The camera captures the ‘keeper saying to him “Wow, free-kick!”, in reference to Pirlo’s stunning, corkscrewing effort that left the bar shaking, and Hart so far ensconced in No Man’s Land that you could hear him mutter to himself that it’s probably time he altered the address details on his car insurance policy.
The second shows Hart moments after that same shot, with England losing and time ticking away. He dashes behind his goal to retrieve the wayward ball, and demands a swift return from the ball-boy. After failing to oblige immediately, Hart kicks the advertising hoarding in a moment of Ketsbaian apoplexy, screaming to a God that simply does not care.
Do these moments tell us more than the fact he is a fawning, self-regarding tit? Perhaps they hint at a wider malaise, something typically English, typically mediocre. That Hart would be so gushingly deferential to Pirlo’s moment of magic is almost embarrassing, akin to complimenting the chiselled abs of the man boffing the girl you like. That is simply what Pirlo does, what any world-class player does. They find ways to surprise, they deliver at the top level. That an England player would be so pleasantly shocked by such a moment casts him as just another rube with vague pretensions of joining the Magic Circle himself one day.
As for the strop with the ball, there are deeper concerns that stretch beyond the basic civil rights of Brazil 2014’s Football Circulation Operatives. Hart sometimes gives the impression that a lot of what he projects is for show, never moreso than two years ago, when he unveiled his self-vaunted distraction techniques during the doomed penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy. He bounced on his line, tongue flailing and arms waving, choosing to interpret a unique bravery in his silliness, when all the world saw was just silliness.
The thought that Hart, The Man of 1,000 Product Endorsements, might be preoccupied with his image will prompt scant surprise. But it smacked of a desire to be seen trying, an overwrought attempt at chest-beating, heart-on-sleeve passion, a contrived attempt at pandering to the patriots. Butcher’s blood, Gascoigne’s tears, Hart’s aggression – the latest addition to the gaudy tableau of misplaced English emotions. In that moment, Hart wanted so badly to be perceived as a mainstay and a standard-bearer. He so wanted to be seen as an England Player, without realising that he achieved it all too easily.
There is something strangely poignant about his relationship with Pirlo. Two years ago the midfielder put Hart and his shenanigans in place with a Panenka, a visceral demonstration of who was boss. The next time they met, Hart, remembering his station, showed the respect that the old man had not so much earned, but just took.
You can almost imagine them meeting in another place, another time, perhaps a chance encounter on holiday, with Hart slow-clapping through gritted teeth across a poker table, as Pirlo ignores all bluffs to nonchalantly lay down a Royal Flush. Hart might even shake his hand once more and say “Wow, cards!”, as Pirlo returns the gesture with confusion, not really understanding what the Englishman means by it all. Because all he did was win.