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Mesut Özil is often scorned as a player who doesn’t always give his all, but what those fans really want is to be fooled by a theater of effort.

Photograph by Stuart Macfarlane

Photograph by Stuart Macfarlane

 

In the 24th minute of every Toronto FC home game, the supporters sing “The Danny Dichio Chant.” It doesn’t amount to much. There isn’t a lot of subtlety in “Ooooooo, Danny Dichio/ Dichio, Dichio/ Danny Dichiooooo!” They sing because in the 24th minute of a game against the Chicago Fire, at BMO Field in Toronto, on May 12, 2007, Dichio scored their team’s inaugural goal in Major League Soccer.

The goal, when it came, was always going to come from Dichio. That’s what the supporters felt intuitively. A journeyman, he spent the 1990s and early 2000s playing for Queens Park Rangers, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Millwall, and Preston North End. He also spent time in Italy, with Sampdoria and Lecce. Born Daniele Salvatore Ernest Dichio to an English mother and Italian father, he was a fan favorite, especially in England. He had guts, he had enthusiasm. When he started with Toronto FC he stood out—a gangly, shaved-headed striker who was all elbows and energy. He put effort into every match. Even if the effort amounted to flailing his arms in the box while waiting for the corner kick, it was as plain as an elbow in your eye that Dichio was putting in a shift. He was no shirker.

The ideal of “effort” is peculiar to England. No, wait, maybe it’s peculiar to the English style of play as practiced across northern Europe and, to a large degree, in MLS. It’s a kind of cultural touchstone of the English-style game—a guy putting in a shift of running, kicking, tracking back to defend, always using his physical presence and making an ostentatious display of commitment. No matter that the commitment on display is largely redundant. It is a time-honored thing, this commitment, this barging around. It is deeply resonant, and heaven help the player who declines to engage in pointless huffing. In the arena of the English-style game, the player who becomes fatigued with the theater of effort, the showy running and physical commitment, is walking into the abyss. To be seen as cynical about frenzied application is to be loathed.

“Özil Shows No Effort Again” declared a headline on an Arsenal fan site during the 2016–17 season. And that cannot be taken as merely an obsessed fan’s lopsided derision. No, the dim view of Özil’s alleged lack of effort didn’t stop there. “Arsenal Fans Pan Mesut Özil for Lack of Effort as Arjen Robben Fires Bayern Munich Ahead” was the headline in a Metro newspaper after Arsenal’s defeat in the Champions League. There’s something so specific and calculated about the summation in the headline: It is the ultimate negative review.

The headline and the ensuing story channel fan frustration: “While Francis Coquelin was guilty of showing Robben inside, many supporters were incensed by the World Cup winner’s lack of pressing and labeled him as lazy for not trying to help defensively.” The story continues with the inclusion of anti-Özil comments on Twitter, as if the reporting of an important Champions League match now requires taking the pulse of fan frustration through social media. This only furthers the superficiality of the coverage.

The obsession with “effort” is, in truth, very superficial. But it is revealing. A lot of it is about money, plain and simple. In day-to-day coverage of the Premier League, it is now normal to feed off fan resentment about wages earned by certain players. Özil’s performance during the 2016–17 season became irrevocably tied to his salary. Already earning about £140,000 a week, he stalled on signing a new contract that would take him close to £300,000 a week. This is the real flash point in the anger about Özil’s “effort”—he doesn’t look as if he’s doing sufficient work to deserve the money. By tradition, working-class English fans like to see conspicuous industry and endeavor from a player seeking a rise in wages. Thus, not flaunting a frenzied, increased effort is considered an insult to supporters who pay to attend games.

The obsession with wage and effort only illuminates the sham of it all, mind you. Typically, supporters will grouse about earnings of £140,000 a week but will blithely cheer on the spending of many millions on a new, glamorous but unproven player. They will remain silent on the vast amounts of money that go, inexplicably, to agents, who merely act as middlemen in negotiations between enormously wealthy clubs. What many supporters want is the theatricality of effort. Elbows and enthusiasm. While every match played during the Premier League season is itself a kind of theater unfolding on the field, the fan obsession with “effort” reduces games from theater to pantomime.

Özil was hired by Arsenal for a reason. He’s a game changer. He has a startling ability to read the game, understand the space available to him and his teammates, and change the dynamic in a game with a penetrating pass of exquisite precision. That’s his job. Sometimes he thrives, and his talent blossoms. When it doesn’t, it might be the fault of the manager whose tactics and player preparation were wildly wrong. Or it might be the fault of teammates who failed to adapt to the specific rhythm of a specific match. Sometimes, Özil is tired, bewildered by what’s happening and spooked by the gap between the manager’s instructions and the reality of what’s unfolding.

What he is not is obstinate, rambunctious, or impulsive. Instead, he is an individualistic outsider—an outsider not terribly interested in satisfying a certain kind of supporter mentality. When fans talk about effort, they mean exaggerated display, which amounts to the behavior of a stock figure in pantomime, a form of theatrical spectacle common in England during the Christmas and summer seasons, often adapted from a fairy tale and including stock types who perform, with melodramatic histrionics, their preordained roles. The role is known in advance. In football, in the English-style game, fulfilling the preordained role is a pledge of loyalty.

It’s not that allegiance to the theater of effort is a dividing line in the game. Supporters adhere to it, wherever the game is played. It’s just a matter of subtle variations on adherence to, and interpretation of, the theatricality. Having a perspective on the absurdity of it all requires distance. In the epistolary book Home and Away, by Karl Ove Knausgård and Fredrik Ekelund (the two writers, one a Norwegian and the other a Swede, wrote long letters to each other as the 2014 World Cup unfolded in Brazil), Knausgård confesses to an admiration of Italy and Argentina that is wonderfully illuminating.

Knausgård, a football fanatic and deeply self-aware man, writes that in his heart, he favors matches that are tactically clever even if they result in a 0-0 draw. He is drawn to the cynicism of the traditional Italian style of play: all careful, crafty control of the space on the field and determined protection of a one-goal lead. He worships Andrea Pirlo, the imperious Italian midfielder who made ownership of the midfield seem effortless.

In one long letter, Knausgård speculates that his admiration for Italy is connected to his sense of self-worth. He argues that what he has always wanted, as a man, is to appear to the world as a stylish fellow: clever, self-aware, and having all his achievements seem effortless, born of inherent skill. That’s what Italy represents to him: a way of life, lacking in braggadocio. Apparently, if he could be anyone in the world, he would be Pirlo. This is from an internationally renowned best-selling author. It is not an eccentric view. It’s realistic and a clever insight into the way some football fans, but especially literary men, project meaning onto the efforts of certain great players who merely move a ball around a green field.

Yet for all Knausgård’s knowing insight, it is the minority opinion. And to some it will seem heartless. All of us who follow the game cherish certain players whose energy and gusto bring luster to the most mediocre of encounters. Think about the Manchester clubs. Whether one loves or loathes both of them, they have players who are universally admired for their effort. There is Park Ji-sung, the South Korean who played over 200 games for Manchester United, starting in 2005. Never a star in the galaxy of United players in that era, he was a legend for his fitness level, work ethic, and ceaseless off-the-ball movement. He had an endurance that was astonishing. He was all vitality and, in truth, not much nuance. He earned himself the nickname Three Lungs Park.

Carlos Tevez might fall into the same group. Memorably called “the one-man soap opera” by the Guardian, he never gave less than a spirited display. Always a whirlwind of work and zeal, he was the people’s choice, especially at home in Argentina, where at one point, he was more popular on the national team than Lionel Messi. Such players acquire an authority and status by sheer force of personality and willpower but, most of all, through display of effort.

Tevez played for a time at Manchester United with Dimitar Berbatov, and the contrast in perception of the two players is enlightening. Berbatov had superb acumen and technical ability, but he gave the impression of being nonchalant—his sublime composure was interpreted as everything from sloth to arrogance. Admired but unloved, Berbatov represents the crux of the issue in the theater of effort. He was an artist, but supporters love artisans with impressive dedication to intensity. What supporters want, what catches the eye week in and week out, is a player doing obligatory emotional labor. Speed, penetration, and youthful exuberance is what they want, even if the player is long past the stage of youthful anything.

In Toronto, Danny Dichio is now in his seventh season coaching with the Toronto FC Academy, having retired from playing in September 2009. He remains an immensely popular figure at the club and among fans. He’s also emerged as an articulate, incisive, often witty TV pundit. But the days of Toronto relying on a player of his blunt industry are over.

Instead, the team’s greatest asset and one true star is the small, nimble Sebastian Giovinco. He’s got sublime ball skills and likes to play with flourish, but he never showboats. He has a breathtaking first touch and formidable speed, and he’s relentless. What he exhibits is a different kind of effort—one that seems effortless. He enjoys beating defenders with skill and speed. He smiles at an outrageous maneuver gone wrong. He’ll try it again. He took Toronto FC to the MLS Cup Final in 2016 and in the early going of the 2017 season, he took the team to the top of the Eastern Conference.

More vital is the pleasure he delivers to the supporters. There are nights when a whipping wind blows wet snow in from Lake Ontario and casts a pall over BMO Field as Toronto struggle to a tied-game conclusion. Sit in the upper stands—wet, cold, and regretting the journey to the stadium—and then watch Giovinco do something that takes your breath away. Effort that looks effortless is a rare quality, and he epitomizes it. Effort is dead. Long live effort.

This article originally appeared in issue 11 of Eight by Eight, a quarterly magazine fusing longform football writing with high quality illustration, photography and design. Subscribe here and follow Eight by Eight on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

 

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