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The fine line between passion and insolence in football

OFFICIAL
Feature
701   //    17 Mar 2019, 11:40 IST

The Kepa incident in the Carabao Cup final was an act of insolence, not passion.
The Kepa incident in the Carabao Cup final was an act of insolence, not passion.

The year is 2014, Arsenal have just lost 6-0 to Chelsea in Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game, the banter levels are reaching new heights and as Arsenal fan, you just cannot take it. You, however, take solace in a video making the rounds at that particular point in time of Arsene Wenger calling football, a game of passion in a thick French accent. He is pursued by the Arsenal fanatic and beaten at the end of that video. What Passion you make ask? Especially from a team that looked disoriented at that point.

The truth however is, football is indeed a game of passion (albeit not in the thick French accent of Arsene Wenger). Ask South American football fans. Football is more than just a sport to them. It’s a way of life. It is a sacred institution that cannot be desecrated. I have watched Copa 90’s 2018 coverage of the Superclasico a thousand times, hardly would you not hear the word ‘passion’. You would, in fact, feel this passion from the way they speak.

Passion according to the Cambridge dictionary is ‘that powerful feeling, the extreme interest in or wish for doing a thing’. We all have different passions, but for some, this Passion becomes a religion. Again, I’d take you back to Argentina, where it is rumored Diego Maradona is allegedly worshipped. Surprised? I guess not. For them, this means more. It's not just there.

It is a phenomenon popular in the Latin community. Their footballers are a beacon. The production line ever increasing. Many attribute this passion for football due to the fact that its seen as an escape route from poverty. Football changes your life; be it in Medellin, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Asunción or Bilbao.

In Bilbao, Spain (where they adopt a Basque-only policy), the Lezama Academy is the escape route. Once you are in, you have a great chance of becoming a footballer. The club teaches not only to be a good footballer, but also a good human being, as said by Jose Amorrotu. They are taught basic ethos of life. It is here Kepa Arrizabalaga was taught football. He is Athletic Club’s most expensive sale. Amorrotu calls him a very good boy, He never gave anyone problems. However, in the Carabao Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester City, Kepa did not do that. In probably what was the most dramatic end to a game where Chelsea, his new club had created all the action moments, the young goalie refused to come off with his number up on the substitution board.

He had waved his hands, wriggling it in the air rejecting his manager’s instructions. Willy Caballero, the man meant to come on, left hapless. He was made to look like a kid who had been denied his own meal. He had looked angry. He had every right to be. Whatever the situation, Kepa should have come off. The dust has since settled on the matter. The Basque has been subsequently punished and fined a week wage.

Many angles have been used in viewing the matter. The most common, The goalkeeper’s passion. Jose Mourinho himself opined, “I like him. He has passion. He wanted to prove himself”. Glowing praise from the Portuguese. We must, however, remember Kepa is in esteemed company.

Leo Messi loves to play. He wants to be on the pitch for every minute of his side’s games. He is popularly regarded as the greatest in the world. Messi had refused to come off in 2014 against Eibar with Barcelona 3-0 up. Luis Enrique had wanted to preserve his maestro for the upcoming games. We know how that story ended. Enrique subsequently benched Messi, starving him of the playing time he craved. The harsh treatment would make Enrique unpopular. However, reconciliation between player and coach in subsequent months would see the Catalans claim an unprecedented second treble.

Messi has since changed that perspective. He has realized he cannot play every game again. If he does, how do others develop?

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The passion claim is a farce. A view of selfish beings, it is good to be passionate, but football is a team sport, and in a team of twenty-five registered first team players, keeping them happy is a hard job in itself. It is highly self-centered and narcist of an individual to think himself bigger than the team. It is not anyone’s birthright to play more minutes than another, It’s a privilege.

Refusal to be subbed off isn’t passion, it is insolence. It falls into the same category as the crimes of Nikola Kalinic and Carlos Tevez, who refused to come on when summoned from the bench.

Kalinic had been asked to go warm up at the 2018 World Cup’s well-publicized most public spat. The incident was in Croatia’s opening win against Nigeria. 2-0 up and with eight minutes to go, Zlatko Dalic wanted to bring on the talismanic Atletico striker, He refused. He was too good to be starting on the bench; he claimed. Kalinic was subsequently sent home for gross indiscipline and even went as far as rejecting the silver medal. Dalic has not looked back.

His mentor is Carlos Tevez, who had perpetrated the act in 2011, refusing to come on in a Champions League tie against Bayern München while on the books at Manchester City. All hell was let loose in the dugout, and what followed was a public spat well supported by mandatory time-off back home. Tevez would return different, City would go on to dramatically win the league in 2012.

Lukasz Fabianski once did a ‘Kepa’ in 2016 at Swansea under Carlos Carvahal. Suffering a what was a perceived broken rib and with his side leading 1-0, He refused to be subbed. Soldiering on with passion. Nordfeldt, the substitute goalkeeper stood looking as Caballero was - speechless. Swansea lost 3-1 subsequently. Nordfeldt was just another goalkeeper who had been denied the opportunity to do his job by a fellow colleague on the grounds of passion. Many have called for subsequent punishments to be meted out on this ground. Players who take time to leave the pitch get sometimes booked for time-wasting. It should apply here. The coaches have to be protected, both in the boardroom and on the pitch.

Everybody wants to be a hero on the football pitch. It's pretty cool and understandable why. In “All or Nothing: Manchester City”; Fabian Delph openly admitted that football is one horrible addiction. You always want to play.

“When I am injured, I grab the calendar and look at this date, I want to make that game”. This would consequentially and inevitably put the medical team in a race against time to ensure their fitness and readiness to go. The Physio in the video then admitted; “Sometimes, it works. Most times, it doesn’t.”

For footballers, the brain would secret dopamine while in play. It’s all about momentum. Once you beat the first man, and get in the zone, it’s all you need. That is why when a man is in form, he is unstoppable. It’s the reason why when its derby days, the boy who has been a fan or a ball boy who is now a first team player would be expected to perform more because “he knows what these games mean”.

You cannot take away passion from the game. It's like removing milk from the process of making cheese. You would be left with nothing. However, you cannot also add too much butter to bread or too much salt in the sauce. It would lose its essence. There is a length to which things can be done. Serena Williams was labeled all kinds of names when she went on what was a passionate but foul-mouthed tirade on the umpire in her US Open defeat to Naomi Osaka in 2017. Sport might be nothing without passion, but it would also be nothing with too much of it. Sports would be a disaster with insolence.

The football club is run by the board or the owner off the field. The on-field general is the coach. Refusing the general’s instructions regardless, whether good or bad is insolence and not passion. Sportsmen must draw a fine line between these two. 

The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

By: Tosin Holmes

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