Recently I went back and read through my post on Michael Owen for The Equaliser’s My Favourite Footballer series. To save you from reading it, the post can best be summed up as such: Owen was my favourite footballer as a child and a large part of why I’m into football now, but I’m not overly fond of him now, meaning he isn’t really my favourite footballer.
Which begs the question: who is then?
My first thought was smiley bundle of loveliness Cafu – a player so inherently likeable that I was amazed no one had written about him. Nevertheless, he is not my favourite footballer.
I realised that my affections, like pretty much anyone’s, are easily split into categories. There are plenty of players who I like, very much in fact, by the virtue of being really really good. They are not my favourites. Being brilliant isn’t good enough, and might well be working against them. To me, the likes of Xavi or Leo Messi are like that friend you have where you like them, they’re a really nice person after all, but when you’re left alone with them there’s long periods of awkward silence.
To get into the inner circle, you just need to be funny. The kind of person who might, say, repeatedly hit an eleven year-old girl in the head with a locker door “by accident”, backhand someone who’s hitting on them or throw metal sporting equipment at an innocent, if annoying, hanger on. This is pretty much standard affair for everyone – you act this way (although I’d imagine most of you are less sociopathic than my example) around your best friends because you trust them and are comfortable around them, which makes applying this logic to footballers bizarre. I don’t know them, so I’m looking for glimpses of this wryness in them.
Cafu, for instance, is a great guy and arguably the best right-back of all-time, but the best thing about him was that, at 38, he was physically embarrassing players twenty years his junior. It was impossible not to match his cheeky smile when watch watching him storm down the line for the eightieth time past the knackered 20 year-old he’s up against.
The best of all, though, is Javier Mascherano: a manipulative, sneaky, little monster. Mascherano doesn’t make me smile like Cafu does, he makes me smirk.
He’s the type of player who I would imagine is easy to hate if on the opposing team. What Mascherano lacks in the dribbling of Messi or the passing of Xavi, he makes up for with his sheer cunning – what Italians call furbizia. Furbizia isn’t about breaking the rules, it’s about exploiting them. A master of the niggling foul, Mascherano knows when he canâ€™t get the ball and makes a very minor foul so the team can reshape, but itâ€™s unreasonable to book him.
Or the way he will spin his body when he sees someone coming to draw a foul, twisting into the foetal position upon contact, hand on ankle, often spending a good time resting on his forehead before lifting himself to his feet. With the opposition players whinging at the ref and there usually some teammates between him and the remainder, he gingerly gets up and limps for a few steps, a painful sneer across his face, then glances around and that sneer flickers from his faux pain to that little smirk, a little glint in the eye.
This isn’t to say he’s not talented – he clearly is. As far as I’m concerned, Mascherano’s the best defensive midfielder in the world – his tackling ability is second-to-none and, although his rabid running veils it, he’s positionally perfect. His importance was underlined in the 2007 Champions League final, where he was given the task of nullifying Kaka. The man who had torn apart Liverpool two years before was marked completely out of the game – there’s a tackle by Mascherano where I still can’t work out how he got the ball – until the Argentinian was taken off for Peter Crouch, leaving Kaka free to set up Pippo Inzaghi’s second goal.
Neither is he as limited a player as often made out, but when playing next to someone who is, he too would appear to be. For several seasons, he was Xabi Alonso’s legs in the Liverpool midfield, mercilessly harassing the opposition because the Basque playmaker couldn’t. Then, when he won the ball back, he would give it to Alonso, not because he couldn’t use it himself, but because Alonso was better. For Argentina, he is calmer and allowed to be a more metronomic holding player, the ball never gets a yard away from him in possession and his perfectly-weighted diagonal passes would make most players envious. There were reasons beyond personal issues as to why Diego Maradona chose to leave Esteban Cambiasso in Milan for the World Cup.
There’s no excuse for his shooting though, but when he does pull it off, it’s something special. Manically running towards the supporters, clearly shouting “fuck off”, for example.
Off the pitch, he appears to a nice guy – a quiet and unassuming family man. Regardless, it’s that comical sneer that always gets me.