Big Lang Theory: In praise of arrogance


This isn't another article about THAT goal (not least because a piece consisting entirely of bawdy sexual adjectives would be rub... actually, it would be amazing. I'll try that next week), but let's use it as a jumping off point. The best thing about the goal wasn't the vision. It wasn't the athleticism, nor the technique. It was the arrogance.

Firstly, you have to have a pretty high opinion of yourself to even contemplate doing that. Behind every decision, there is a wealth of instantaneous evaluations that the rational mind carries out. Some of them are pretty complex - moral obligations, consequences, cost-benefit, yadda yadda – but there's also a fairly mundane one: Is this actually physically possible? For Zlatan to have decided to do THAT, he must have (very, very swiftly) looked at the evidence available to him - "I have scored goals from similarly improbable angles in the past." "Goodness, my hamstrings do feel stretchy tonight" - and decided that "Yeah, this is entirely within my physical grasp" and subsequently "I'm going for it." Very few people boast the corporeal might to score from such a position. Even fewer would back themselves to actually go through with it.

Secondly, in the fractions of a second following Ibra's contact with the ball, he actually contorts his body further in order to watch the denouement of his actions. Not content to just collapse in an understandable heap, he's desperate to be spectator as well as protagonist, to enjoy his own brilliance like everyone else in the stadium. He's not just "seeing what happens", because he knows exactly what's going to happen. When the stadium erupts, he bursts back into action, but it's not the endorsement of his team-mates (watch the replay; these are the most one-sided high fives and hugs in history) or the fans that brings him joy: it's his own sense of achievement. Zlatan congratulates you, Zlatan. That truly was a remarkable slice of Zlatan style.

There isn't enough arrogance in the British game. Our players, even when they have physical and technical ability to make any defence quiver, lack that elusive spark that separates the good and the great. The last true star to appear in the Premier League was Cristiano Ronaldo, whose name still provokes stock Luddite responses along the lines of "Amazing player, shame about all the posing, posturing and preening." The truth of the matter, though, is that Ronaldo is amazing because of the posing, posturing and preening. Take away that colossal sense of self worth, the pouting, the insistence on checking his hair on the big screen, and you're left with a skillful player who doesn't quite have the je ne sais quoi to take it to the next level. You're left with Nani, basically.

When a player from these shores does threaten to develop an arrogant streak, we soon sand off the corners of his game. The 16-year-old, wondergoal-scoring Wayne Rooney knew just how amazing he was, as did the Rooney who scored a hat-trick on his Manchester United debut. Gradually, though, the stories about prostitutes and the giggles about his grammar and the Shrek jokes have taken their toll: Wayne Rooney's has shrunk back into himself on a personal level, and his game has followed suit. The hair graft was perhaps a futile attempt to stem the bleeding from his ego - and even that backfired.

We see the hallmarks and side effects of arrogance - care over physical appearance, for instance - as effeminate, and thus to be mistrusted in the gruff world of football. Perhaps due to our relative lack of achievement since we actually invented football, we also see supreme confidence as somehow unsporting: as if there's something inherently unseemly about being great and knowing it. Forget the glory of victory; give British football an honourable, well-taken defeat any day of the week. Give us the mongrel toil of James Milner over the thoroughbred magnifence of Francesco Totti; give us the loveable Roy Hodgson over the title-collecting Fabio Capello.

But we need arrogance: both to aid actual performance (imagine how good Andy Carroll would be if he just believed. He'd be like a rodeo buck in a china shop) and just, well, to make things more interesting. Remember José Mourinho, whose knowing quips spawned an improbable number of rushed stocking-filler books and made football weak at its scarred knees? That was a brief affair during which British football saw how the other half lived. The fifty-shades-of-grey media training platitudes uttered by 99% of Premier League players make fans want to walk headfirst into a combine harvester, and cannot but have a stultifying effect on someone who thinks they could break the mould.

Arrogance must, though, bear some loose relation to ability. (Maybe this is why there aren't many arrogant British players: there simply aren't enough good British players.) If the correlation breaks down, you're left with Daniel Sturridge, celebrating a goal against Manchester United's reserves as if he'd scored a hat-trick in the World Cup final and found the cure for cancer on the same day. It is towards these laughable figures, and not towards the Wayne Rooney group, that the no-showing-off-please-we're-British bile should be directed.

One day, we might finally learn to cherish arrogance, and recognise its function as a facilitator of sporting excellence. One day, our national teams could be graced by players who enchant as much as Cantona, as much as Ronaldo, as much as Zlatan. For now, though, just watch that goal again and lament what could have been.