How flawed sportsmen became a thing of the past

Image of Simon Kuper

Watching Michael Jackson’s funeral this week, the sports fan’s mind travelled back to a funeral in Rio de Janeiro in 1983. Garrincha, most beloved of Brazilian footballers, had died aged 49 after yet another drinking bout. A fire engine carried his tiny body to his hometown of Pau Grande. Great crowds lined the roads, extra trains carried more mourners, and as the trains passed the cemetery they sounded their whistles. “Garrincha,” said a sign on a tree, “you made the world smile and now you make it cry.”

Sport today occupies an even greater share of public life than in 1983. Nonetheless, it is now almost impossible to imagine an athlete’s funeral as big as Jackson’s or Garrincha’s. Sportsmen no longer touch us the way they used to.

Garrincha – like his fellow footballer George Best, who received a giant funeral in Belfast in 2005 – belonged to the generation of athletes with tragic flaws. Like Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, these men were at once greats and victims. So is Diego Maradona. Years ago, when his heart seemed to be failing, Argentines began preparing for a funeral to match Eva Perón’s. People love famous flawed victims.

Garrincha, Best and Maradona were sportsmen in the days before sport was fully a career. They had room to develop lives outside. It was not simply that they drank or took drugs. Sportsmen in those days often modelled their lives on people outside sport. Muhammad Ali was a Sixties’ rebel, Johan Cruijff a Sixties’ youth leader, Best a pop star, John McEnroe a rock star, Maradona something of a religious martyr, Eric Cantona a romantic artist, and the young Andre Agassi a New Age seeker.

You can date the end of this era to 1998. Just as Paul Gascoigne, the last great drunk English footballer, was kicked out of England’s squad for the world cup, Agassi was getting fit and re-dedicating himself to tennis. The fantasist had become a striver. He had recognised that modern sport is so demanding that you can’t do it occasionally. You have to live it, and nothing else.

Today, top sportsmen model themselves on corporate executives. After all, that is what they become as teenagers when they start representing kit sponsors. They follow rigid disciplinary codes, go to bed early, and always speak on message. David Beckham may look like a supermodel, but it’s just a front: he works like a dog. Even cricketers have got fit, and basketball players rarely get arrested any more.

Personality flourishes have almost disappeared from top-level sport. Perhaps the last was Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the world cup final of 2006, after an opponent had slighted his family’s honour. The act possibly cost France the world cup, yet in a poll weeks later the French voted Zidane their most popular compatriot. In an industry suffused with goal-oriented behaviour, he had displayed his flaws.

But Zidane had permitted himself only a one-off flourish in the last moment of his career. A sportsman who drops out of executive mode for longer than a day or two can no longer survive in this business. Ronaldinho was the world’s best footballer until his taste for nightclubs got out of hand. Now he warms Milan’s bench. Few fans see him as a defeated romantic. He’s just a loser.

It would be facile to yearn for the good old days when sportsmen were real people. Today they are fitter, more dedicated, and better at sport than ever before. Roger Federer is perfect. Lionel Messi, the “new Maradona”, may achieve even more than Maradona because he doesn’t have the fat man’s flaws.

Yet Maradona will probably always touch more people than Messi, because nobody can identify with perfection. Furthermore perfect sportsmen, because they avoid risky behaviours, will tend not to die young. Today’s crop of athletes is unlikely to provide us with a funeral like Jackson’s or Garrincha’s. For that they probably deserve congratulation.

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