Metaphysical Club: Soccer's Talismanic Heroes

So brief, the glory of advancing past the group stages. As things suddenly get really real for the 16 teams still playing (update: 14 ... sorry South Korea), Pete returns with his thoughts on the metaphysics of football, specifically, the "talisman," that most mystical of footballing archetypes/commentator shorthands ...

By Pete L'Official

How's your nerve? As the group stage of this 2010 World Cup draws to a close and teams, nations, and cultures have by now discovered newly (are they though?) magnificent ways of disgracing themselves while others find themselves draped in unexpected glory, I can't help but think of how much of the drama of the international soccer tournament writ-large is built into its very structure. Its opening round of games, wherein teams betray equal parts of naivete and diffidence, never wanting to make the first move, lest they be embarrassingly rebuffed; the second match, perhaps more full of confidence and willing to offer themselves forward in search of the reward of the next round; and the final matches, played simultaneously so as to prevent collusion, a directive which also has the alluring effect of intensifying the instantaneous drama of elimination and advance. Each match begins pregnant with possibility and it is only after, say, 75 minutes have ticked off when the fan feels the freedom of a multiplicity of outcomes dwindle to the only three that were ever truly on offer: win, lose, or draw. And now come the single-elimination rounds, which themselves eliminate in their structure one of those outcomes with, of course, the dreaded "spectre" of penalties.

"Spectre" because: 1) it looks just that bit lovelier spelled in the British fashion; 2) lest you confuse the word with a certain second-string American defender; 3) because, let's face it, whatever phantasmagoric spirit may indeed descend upon matches that remain tied at full time is one that haunts mainly the English; and 4) finally, because it is the language of British commentators that is most familiar to most English-speaking American soccer fans. And whether they are describing how a forward player either "spurned a gilt-edged chance," or "finished with aplomb," chances are you've smiled to yourself sometime over the past few weeks at a particularly neat and indubitably British turn of phrase. (It's part-and-parcel of what drew me to the game first: the language, which, in actuality is just as rife with cliché as American sports talk is--just not to the American ear.)

And now that this different form of finality--and indeed, fatalism--enters the tournament, you will no doubt hear another term bandied about: that of a team's "talisman." It is a marvelously indefinite and even enigmatic term, used to describe players that, by turn, lead with the head and not the heart (and vice versa), those who shoulder the entire attacking (or defending) burden for a side, those who either rise highest for late, late headers on target or slide hardest into the tackle, and of course for those so cool, so unflappable, so nerveless on the penalty spot. Who might these all-singing and all-dancing jacks-of-all-talismanic abilities be? But perhaps more importantly, given how many of the following personalities have performed over the past weeks, who needs or even wants one anymore?

To get all OED for the briefest of moments, a talisman is defined by those hallowed lexicographers (the talismans of the dictionary world, perhaps) as "A stone, ring, or other object engraven with figures or characters, to which are attributed the occult powers of the planetary influences and celestial configurations under which it was made; usually worn as an amulet to avert evil from or bring fortune to the wearer; also medicinally used to impart healing virtue; hence, any object held to be endowed with magic virtue; a charm." Generally what you thought it was, if you thought about it at all: essentially, a mystical good luck charm. But it seems that in this World Cup, when it all goes pear-shaped, you'd best not have one of them hanging from your damn chain.

First, the absent: Essien, Ballack, Ronaldinho. Through injury or indolence, these three have had to watch their fellow countrymen play on through the early rounds without them. And play on they did: Ghana, Germany, and Brazil have all qualified for the round of 16. Essien, the truest star among the Black Stars and a sort of heroic, spectacularly-coiffed-and-sinewed everyman for his employers Chelsea, was to be the engine that drove Ghana forward. Ballack would have performed a similar role for Germany, though he is decidedly more a pantomime villain than hero. Ronaldinho is ... Ronaldinho. (@ 5 mins.) He used to be the sharpest tool in the shed; apparently his lust for life has dulled his footballing prowess significantly (either that or his youthful indiscretions cut one absurdly-nicknamed coach a little too deeply). Talismanic effect: Zero.

Then, the fallen: Drogba, Henry, Pirlo. Inspirational was what Didier Drogba's presence was supposed to be for Cote d'Ivoire, fractured elbow and all. One could argue that presence was a distraction rather than a rallying point. Henry? He might as well have shown up to play (or ride the bench, rather) in a one-of-one BAPE tee and Futura-designed Dunks; he's actually quite good in those. Ribery? Come on, son!

Pirlo presents perhaps the most interesting case of all of his fellow departed, since with his introduction, we were able to actually glimpse in real time and with somewhat quantifiable metrics what it is a "talisman" does. While the rest of his Italian brethren were playing like handsome somnambulists for 60-odd minutes, Pirlo came on and orchestrated the Italian attacks, such as they were, brilliantly. Creativity, that bit of seemingly mystical genius that is able to conceive of a defense-cleaving pass which creates space where before there was none, that can conjure a goal out of nothing, but perhaps most importantly lifts the team merely by striding about the pitch, is what the soccer mind imagines as the talisman's stock-in-trade. Yet, even so, the Italians have already been sent home with theirs. I say again, who wants a talisman?

Leave it to the colloquial originators of the term to have a team for which talismanic status is openly argued over and sought after, both on the pitch and in the locker room. The English are, unsurprisingly, a team of talismans, almost to a man composed of those who are the embodiment, the synechdochic emblem of their respective club teams. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and of course (with a nod to The Guardian's newsletter, "The Fiver ") England's Brave And Loyal John Terry could each be termed "talismanic" for England; that is, they are continually invested with the entirety of their country's hopes for success, as if by sheer presence they could will England past their opponents. Maybe that was (and is) the problem.

There is something untoward about demanding to be the leader, no matter what the cost. We all know what JT's like, so I'm not going to comment on that guy, except to say maybe it's best he doesn't have to tug at the captain's armband anymore. And Gerrard? Musical tastes and overwhelming propensity for linguistic invention/contraction aside, let's just say that on occasion (and certainly not always the case, as Chris Ryan has proven elsewhere), STEVEN GERRARD IS ASHEN-FACED. Rooney's merely following Sir Alex's directives to save it all for United in the fall.

To return to the OED once again--for the last time--it's in the latter part of the OED's second figuration of the word where we find a more soccer-appropriate subtext: "Anything that acts as a charm, or by which extraordinary results are achieved." (Let's just hope we're not interpreting the word by its 1834 iteration, according to Thomas Pringle's African Sketches: "Let us subdue savage Africa by Justice, by Kindness, by the talisman of Christian Truth.") The idea of a talisman, then, tells us more about our desires for unifying narratives to explain why the English and the Dutch can't win in penalties, why we care that the palimpsest that is Diego Maradona apparently shares bedside chats with the equally fascinating Jose Mourinho, and why Zinedine Zidane remains extraordinarily compelling even years after his retirement than it does as a signifier of meaning. The idea of a talisman, for example, can't explain away Zizou's magisterial headbutt, but it can offer a kind of occult contextualization for such otherworldly acts.

Unfortunately, much like that cot-damn statue in Lost mythology, the idea in reality might not end up meaning a whole lot at all.

Pete L'Official is currently a student in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard. His interests in modern American literature and culture, American art, and the urban built environment do not preclude him from waking up at ungodly hours on the weekends to watch the English Premier League and the heartwarming, hilarious friendship between Patrice Evra, Park Ji-Sung, and Carlos Tevez. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, Salon, the Believer, and elsewhere. He previously wrote about the Louis Vuitton World Cup trophy case and "authenticity" (see below).

Elsewhere on this blog: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. On the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA. Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air. Bethelem Shoals dissected American rooting politics. Last week, I discussed boredom and webcams, what it means to have "heart," and the racial politics of France's early exit. Most recently, Chris Ryan crunched the numbers on Chile's run-and-shoot attack.