Photo via Ronnie Macdonald on Flickr
Photo via Ronnie Macdonald on Flickr
Twenty-four-year-old Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner, currently on loan to Sunderland, is one of the best strikers in the world. In fact, the 14-year-old Bendtner was probably one of the best strikers in the world. "If you ask me if I am one of the best strikers in the world, I say yes," the 23-year-old Bendtner once said in reply to a question no one actually asked.
You see, he's a confident lad. And it's been proven by science, or whatever the hell psychology is supposed to be. Arsenal shrink Jacques Crevoisier last year recalled a psychological exam taken by Bendtner. "One of the categories is called 'self perceived competence,' i.e. how good the player himself thinks he is," said Crevoisier. "On a scale up to 9, Bendtner got 10!" One has to wonder how someone could score 111.11% on an exam (although Vladimir Putin would give it the ol' KGB try at the very least). No matter. Even if false, this is the truest Nicklas Bendtner story since the one where he sired a child by a Danish aristocrat he met at a shoot for a reality show about the renovation of her castle, several years after she divorced Ian Fleming's nephew and snagged £400 million in the settlement (except that one definitely did happen).
Of course, Bendtner is not one of the best strikers in the world. For all that he sees qualities in the world's best that he swears he himself possesses, for all that he promises that he'll show us some day, it has yet to materialise. In four full seasons in Arsenal's first team squad, he scored 45 goals in 153 games. This record is far from awful, considering that many of those appearances came on the right wing and/or as a substitute. But the reason he was on the right was because Emmanuel Adebayor and then Robin van Persie were usually in the centre, and that was because Bendtner never quite inspired enough confidence to warrant a longer run there. He is a skillful and mobile 6' 5", but he always seemed a beat too slow mentally to play his part in the fluid combinations Arsenal were trying to construct.
He didn't have the problem that, for example, Chelsea's centre-half David Luiz is currently having as he tries to convince the world that he's not actually an attacking midfielder who got lost and is afraid to ask for directions. David Luiz at his worst gives the impression that he doesn't actually know how to defend. When the ball comes towards him and there is an opponent in the vicinity, he can do no more than approximate a defensive action, which means waving a leg at the ball, or suddenly standing still like a glitchy video game character. Bendtner at least seemed to know what his job was—kick the ball in the goal—but all too often, by the time the signal had travelled from the brain to the feet, the chance would be gone.
At least God loves a trier. With Bendtner unable to generate a hum of general contentment, his failures became magnified as they accumulated. They didn't accumulate at a much greater rate than anyone else's did. But with his large frame and his Tintin quiff and, most especially, his manifest destiny, mishaps became pratfalls; his vexed expression may as well have been masked by custard pie. This day 52 weeks ago (not that I'm counting, you understand), in the Champions League, Barcelona decided not to kill Arsenal, merely torturing them for 90 minutes. Inexplicably, as the tie came to an end, one more Arsenal goal would have sealed an away-goals win. Arsenal harried Barça into coughing up the ball in their own half, and Jack Wilshere set Bendtner up in the penalty area. Bendtner needed a half-decent first touch to tee up a shot. Instead, the the ball scooted away from him as if it were impersonating Andrés Iniesta. "What a goof," exclaimed the world, as if chiseling an epitaph. Gerd Müller never had this trouble.
And so was fastened Bendtner's image as someone who tweaked the nose of fate and got laughed at in return. He was too big for his boots, and those boots were pink. It's been some time since it was legally permissible in the UK to kill a player wearing boots of any colour that wasn't black or brown, so long as you entered a plea of self-defence on the grounds that "he looked like one of them queers, m'lud." But to some, they still seemed like an apt fit for a self-aggrandising fool. Donkey thinks he's Pegasus. Icarus falls to earth and blocks his colleague's goal-bound shot.
This image, though, has never quite sat right. Bendtner's not as good as he thinks he is, but he's not as bad as his detractors think. Those who yearn to play nemesis (itself a dangerously hubristic pastime) may wish to accommodate Bendtner only by making him out to be a buffoon. But they miss out on the point that Bendtner is young. He appears to be a reasonably intelligent man, but like many young people, he's cursed and blessed with a particular kind of stupidity that is as inherent to youth as is being young itself: cockeyed optimism.
The former Arsenal player Martin Keown once interviewed Bendtner for the BBC, and asked him, "Is it not better to feel that [fate's-nose-tweaking confidence] inwardly, but not to say it publicly? Because it sets you up for a major fall..." There, such as it is, is the problem. The ranks of professional sportspeople are almost full of the young and stupid. Bendtner just stands out because he's so open about it. His confidence isn't of the fuck-the-world type. It's just very, very optimistic, almost innocently so. When he gets to the stage where he's old enough to realise he's young and stupid, but that he's too young and stupid to do anything about it, maybe he'll go into denial, and wind up an old man still frustrated at his lack of first-team opportunities. Or maybe the grand visions will melt away to reveal that they were merely a manifestation of an optimism that gets him through the day. Anyone who would begrudge him that is probably doing so out of habit. At any rate, one can at least have the good grace to acknowledge when someone expresses their stupid youth with a degree of charm and panache.
When it comes to assessing why Bendtner is such an engaging figure, the supposed cockiness is something of a red herring. No one believes in Bendtner like Bendtner does; no one has ever really been that optimistic on his behalf. So his moments of critical malfunction were never actually huge letdowns. For Arsenal, the last few years have most notably been made up of several huge letdowns interspersed with countless smaller ones. Bendtner was involved with some of the former; but he was involved with more of the latter. Fairly or not, he became no less and, indeed, no more than the god of small disappointments. The four elements of soccer are boredom, agony, ecstasy, and small disappointments. Soccer is so strewn with small disappointments that you have to turn them into big disappointments to make them bearable. You have to inflate them so that they become tangible and properly damnable. You have to make the kid out to be the goat.
I say Bendtner was the god of small disappointments because he's left Arsenal. The loan to Sunderland for the season is likely prelude to a permanent separation. He's yet to uncover his latent Eusébian tendencies. What's worse, he's been hanging around that Lee Cattermole lad his mam warned him against, and he's come down with the Premier League footballer's occupational ailment: getting caught doing 103 mph in a Porsche on a dual carriageway. Anyway, it seems like he's on his way to finding his level, and that his days as a beguiling misfit are over. Or perhaps he'll just be a different kind of misfit: instead of being in over his head, he'll merely be in up to his personalised protective mask. Or maybe he really is great. Or maybe he'll just carve out a decent if scarcely noteworthy career for himself. Given that football is a slightly more interesting game for his presence in it, that would be the biggest small disappointment of all.