To be a true sick note it needs to be assumed that you’re either a malingerer or you’re nicking a living.
Football players get injured; it’s a fact of the game. Sometimes a hamstring twangs, and sometimes Ryan Shawcross breaks Aaron Ramsey’s leg. All those highly tuned machines crashing into one another at high speed as 50,000 scream them on—really, injuries can’t be avoided.
I’ve often wondered how it would feel to be properly reduced by Sergio Ramos or James Collins; it must hurt like hell. I once played a charity game against a former international center half, and he spent the entire game kicking lumps out of me. (I scored twice, by the way, and it was fucking awesome.) When my children watch football with me (which they mostly refuse to do), they mainly just ask if the player lying on the ground is going to be OK. They’re innocent of the savage joy of watching Giorgio Chiellini stick one on, and it doesn’t occur to them that Luis Suárez could possibly be faking it.
Not all injuries are created equal. Either Brian Clough or Bill Shankly (possibly both?) barred injured players from the training ground and wouldn’t look them in the eye—being injured was not socially acceptable. Bert Trautmann is a legend for playing a cup final with a broken neck. In the last couple of years, Jürgen Klopp suggested Daniel Sturridge needed to learn the difference between “serious pain and what is only pain,” and José Mourinho suggested that Luke Shaw, who missed all of last season because of a broken leg, was basically a lady for withdrawing from a match-day squad because of pain.
Mourinho has history in this department, having lost both the Real Madrid and Chelsea dressing rooms by alleging that players, most notably Iker Casillas and Eden Hazard, weren’t willing to play through the pain. John Terry, Mourinho’s No. 1 favorite player of all time, also misses a lot of games through injury but has somehow never had his masculinity impugned. It would be easy to dismiss this as continental profiling if so many of the legends of the treatment table weren’t British. English, French, Dutch, Brazilian—all belong to the category of player known as a sick note. A sick note is a note from your mum explaining why you missed school yesterday; its existence is considered proof you weren’t really ill.
The original sick note was Darren Anderton, a lovely and elegant player for Tottenham and England. His reputation was ruined after a teammate at his first club, Portsmouth, gave him the nickname (presumably because he was often injured) and it stuck. Last year, Anderton got into a serious Twitter beef about whether or not he had to pull out of a half-time charity challenge because of injury. You fuck one goat …
Today’s most prominent sick note is Sturridge. This is a player no one really likes, which can be largely blamed on that stupid dance. But to leave both Manchester City and Chelsea before the age of 25 means you must really be an A-hole. The only thing he seems to like is scoring goals, and he certainly doesn’t fit in with St. Jürgen’s selfless gegenpressing. Sturridge is never fit but it’s always in slightly suspicious areas, like his toe, or his hip. A real man does his cruciate.
To be a true sick note you have to be the kind of player described as languid (i.e., you look as if you’re not trying even when you are). Abou Diaby, regularly castigated by one Arsenal blog for daring to pick up a paycheck and be injured at the same time, had a way of gliding away from a tackle that looked as if he wasn’t even trying. Anderton could spray a pass cross-field to feet without looking up.
So if you’re not a sick note, but you’re always injured, what are you? Bryan Robson, Captain Fantastic of Manchester United and England, has been injured since the Norman Conquest of 1066. He could often be seen clutching his shoulder. But he’s not a sick note. He’s too all-action for that. He belongs to a different group: “career blighted by injury.” Others in that group include Jack Wilshere, Sergio Agüero, Vincent Kompany, and strangely, Wayne Rooney, who is still forgiven for not having been as good as we were told he would be because of his metatarsal break in 2004. These are players who make a fetish of industriousness, great players who like to run and shout and make sure everyone sees how hard they’re working.
It is possible to transcend the limits of injury nomenclature. Robin van Persie was a notorious sick note until his last season at Arsenal, when he decided to win the Golden Boot instead. Then (pass the sick bag) he had one great season at Manchester United and won them the league. Suddenly all the waiting for van Persie was worth it, and he became a player whose career had been blighted, etc, etc. It is possible RVP is legitimately cursed? He followed those two great seasons with the David Moyes era and was then shipped off to Fenerbahçe by his mentor Louis van Gaal. Now he can’t even get onto the team because—guess what—he’s always injured.
It’s easy as an Arsenal fan to become paranoid about injuries. From the breakup of the Invincibles until the signing of Granit Xhaka, Arsenal have been accused of being a collective sick note, and not without cause—Samir Nasri was allowed onto the pitch wearing a snood in case he caught a cold. Arsenal are always at the top of the injury chart, always. Having said that, three Arsenal players also had their legs broken by tackles from opposing players, and a broken leg is a broken leg. Arsenal are often blamed for their soft-tissue injuries and when the inevitable crisis hits, it’s always somehow their fault. They collectively receive the Clough/Shankly treatment. Clubs with a less fancy pedigree, and a more expansive sense of squad building, get to be devastated by injury.
When I was a kid, choruses of “Let him die!” broke out the moment the ref stopped play for an opponent’s injury. It didn’t matter who the player was or the extent of the damage, the best thing to do, according to the crowd, was to leave him there until play stopped for some more sporting reason. There were two options for an injured player—the stretcher or the magic sponge, either carried off or the pain literally washed away, the nonparental version of kissing it better.
A couple of years ago, the rules were changed so that any suspected concussion meant a player was not allowed to continue. This is a good thing, even if it’s been abused by players collapsing and holding their heads to prevent a quick counterattack. Football players feign injury constantly: there’s Alexis Sánchez, a true bull, rolling on the floor in agony after getting a small push in the back. Or Sergio Busquets, who should probably never be invited to supper anywhere ever again after his infamous eye peek.
There’s this amazing moment in the otherwise terrible movie Flags of Our Fathers—a sailor falls from an aircraft carrier into the Pacific Ocean. At first, he laughs and jokes as he waits to be rescued, only to realize the convoy will not stop for him. That’s basically how football treats its injured: There is too much at stake to stop. If Mourinho hadn’t instructed his players to waste time, then Hazard wouldn’t have had to roll on the ground as if he’d been shot, Eva Carneiro wouldn’t have had to run onto the pitch to treat him, and Mourinho wouldn’t have had to try to stop her. And if none of that had happened, Mourinho wouldn’t have had her barred from training, which led to his losing the dressing room, which led to his firing, which brought him to Manchester United, where, allegedly, he had always wanted to go in the first place.
They shoot horses, don’t they?
This article original appeared in issue 10 of Eight by Eight. Please consider supporting our independent magazine by subscribing.