Photo © Wonker, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Photo © Wonker, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Shall I talk about Robin van Persie? Actually, that's a bit disingenuous of me: I could no more avoid talking about Robin van Persie than Augustus Gloop could avoid lapping from the river of chocolate. (Or than I could avoid lapping from the river of chocolate, for that matter, but that's a pathology for another day.) I'm into my third decade of Goonerdom, and van Persie may well be my favourite Arsenal player: more than the legion of great players who were very literally before my time (sorry, Liam); more than Henry, more than Pirès, more than Ljungberg or Vieira or Petit; more than all those stingy defenders, magnificent bastards all; more than Rocky Rocastle or the miraculous Mickey Thomas; more than Paul Davis and Anders Limpar combined; more than Ian Wrightwrightwright; more, even, than Dennis Bergkamp. Yes, God forgive me, more than Bergkamp. This is serious, man.
Of course, it's because of his style of play. Van Persie, at 6' 0", is a skillful big man. (He's at the lower limit of the "big man" range, admittedly, but he's big, nonetheless.) To say that a player has "good touch for a big man" is an especially groanworthy cliché these days, but it stems from a truth: that a tall footballer is less likely to have the co-ordination of a short player, and you need the co-ordination of a short player in order to be skillful. It's all about "low centre of gravity" (an incipient cliché). We keep supposing that footballers will become taller, broader and stronger, but football's gravity is stronger than other sports': the best player in the world needed added growth hormones to get him up to 3' 6" or whatever he is. Some players of above-average height, however, overcome their disadvantage to be as nimble as anyone; and when they're really good—like Bergkamp or Zidane, or even Pastore—their extra inches lend their movements an exaggerated smoothness that seems to defy sense. (Cristiano Ronaldo is a notable exception: he is more like a matador whose deft preliminaries are performed for form's sake, before he simply steps up and punches the bull in the nose.) Van Persie belongs in that category, but with a kink: in the one move, in the space of a split second, he can look in total control, then appear to be succumbing to big-man physics, then snap back into control, before doing something indecently wonderful with that left foot.'
And, of course of course, it's because of how effective he is. He currently leads the Premier League scoring charts (16 goals at time of writing), and by the time you read this, he may have broken Alan Shearer's record for most Premier League goals in a calendar year. No, stats aren't as starkly objective as they try to seduce you into believing, and this one is a particularly eccentric one (on two counts: because the season runs from August to May, so who cares about the calendar year?; because there had already been a century of League football in England before the Premier League parked on your lawn). But they can tell a story. There have been times—and not just this season—when he has had to carry an unfair burden, when it's been up to him and him alone. But he's borne it. Has he ever borne it.
A few weeks ago, he scored the only goal of the game against Everton, in the midst of a mediocre Arsenal display. The day before, in celebration of the club's 125th anniversary, statues were unveiled outside the Emirates Stadium commemorating Tony Adams and Thierry Henry—two great figures from Arsenal's recent past—and Herbert Chapman—the great figure of Arsenal's distant past. Van Persie's goal was moving sculpture. As Alex Song played a delightful ball over the defence, van Persie snuck behind his marker and let loose a volley that was damn near perfect. It made the Dutch commentator on the game lapse into English: "What a beauty! What a beauty!" (unless there's a Dutch phrase "Wotte bjoetie!" that I'm unaware of). The co-commentator on the Scandinavian station I saw the game on could only utter an awed "Oj oj oj..." Even the BBC's Alan Hansen, more given (and not entirely unreasonably, kiddos) to seeing a goal as the result of defensive error than of attackers' creativity, made the appropriate inappropriate noises as he watched it back from multiple camera angles, eagerly pointing out the best view. After the game, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny kissed van Persie's boot, on behalf of all Arsenal fans and others besides, because that's what he means to us.
Except ... it isn't. Not entirely, anyway. What he means, so to speak, is not just to be found in the beautiful shapes he makes and what they do to Arsenal's position in the table, but in the dread alternative realities that could have transpired: the negative space around him that throws what he has done into relief. For example, when Cesc Fàbregas was recalled by Barcelona from his eight-year loan spell, it boded ill not just for the team as a whole, but for van Persie in particular. That Song ball? It used to be Cesc doing that. But Robin's done alright. Then, there's the case of Dimitar Berbatov. How I feel about van Persie is how many feel about Berbatov, and his devotees are currently undergoing paroxysms of despair, because if the only two strikers left at Manchester United were Berbatov and a pair of Javier Hernández's game-worn shorts, Alex Ferguson would pick Shorty Shortiño every time. Van Persie isn't likely to get dropped any time soon, but there but for the grace of Arsène go we. Most of all, there is the constant shadow of van Persie's injury record. He has yet to play more 30 league games in any of his nine seasons at Arsenal. In 2010–11, he averaged just short of two goals in every three Premier League matches, but he only played 25 times (out of a possible 38). So far this term, he has been healthy, and has scored just short of a goal a game. But every time he falls, you wince. You wish he could be declared a protected building, for no player to be allowed to so much as ask him to swap shirts without going through a legal process excessive in length and expense. Yet almost halfway through the season, he's still healthy. Relief, as I say.
And there's a clue in all this to a deeper truth: that all of these specific anxieties are symptoms of a greater one. The whole notion that watching these ... these kids' games can move us so is almost absurd. It's one of the great accidents of our time. Dennis Bergkamp may have said "I suppose I'm not that interested in scoring ugly goals", but he had little control over the matter. He scored goals however he could; he played however he could. It just happened that he could often leave you dumbstruck while doing so. See for example, this famous goal of his, against Newcastle in 2002; but listen, too, to his explanation afterwards. It's not just modesty that leads him to say that his turn was "the only option, the quickest way towards the goal" — it's because he's in touch with how contingent these expressions of (let's use the word) genius on the sportsfield are. Except in those sports in which beauty is at least the partial aim (eg. diving, synchronized swimming, figure skating), it would take a first-rate narcissist to believe that he could consciously create beauty, except on the occasions when he has the time to do so, which are few.
Two forces compete. One is the quirk of history which has led these games, invented for the joy of playing them, to become spectacles; from the time people decided that they would gladly pay to watch, sport became a product, and people availing of products expect. The other force is the knowledge—and we should know, whether because we've played sport or simply through reason—that the beauty in sport is just a by-product; it's effectively capricious. There is a necessary partition between the spectator and the participant. What may seem to us a composed story is, at pitch-level, a wrestle with chaos. This division isn't a bad thing; personally, I'm quite comfortable with it, and I enjoy regarding sport as a story, in all its messiness, skulduggery and even downright ugliness. But when the chaos is momentarily tamed, the relationship between us and the player changes. We are never so close to the action as we are at the still point, just as the thing is happening, but before its consequence is apparent (the moment van Persie strikes the ball), and at the moment just afterwards (when the ball is in the net, and your mind struggles to expand quickly enough to take it all in). It's a big bang giving birth to something that, for a few seconds at least, is everything.
The statues of Adams and Henry depict them just after they scored important goals for Arsenal. Those given to seeing coincidences as poetic might raise a smile at this. When something like the van Persie goal happens, it is often reported in terms what it meant for the match, or for the team's season, or for the continuing story of a Great Man—in other words, we feed it into the narrative. There's no harm in that. But I think it is in part a fumbling towards something else: a profound feeling of gratitude that people can do this: we ourselves might not be able to do it, but something like us can, and we can engage in some form of communion with it. That the van Persie goal was scored by someone constantly stalked by his parallel lives made it especially poignant. Whether we coo over an action replay, or freeze the afterglow in bronze, we are giving thanks that, through the strains and the ruptures, the coach's decision and indecision, the randomness and the sheer bloody humanness of sport, it can all make sense.