The modern love for hating heroes has gone too far – now Chelsea fans are causing sorrow to their star man
There was plenty of excitement in the media this week about David Bowie's surprise comeback single. Although it has to be said some of it felt a bit like the kind of excitement you often find in those terribly sombre BBC documentaries where a man with a beard stands in front of a bookcase and says "punk was the cultural chainsaw that transformed absolutely everything for ever. Its influence is … staggering" over footage of drunk people jostling each other while a cross-looking man pretends he can play the guitar. You know the kind of excitement: triumphant mid-life vindication excitement, the kind of excitement that might even seem a bit weird to the actually-young, for whom David Bowie – while obviously, you know, great – has perhaps already become a respectfully observed cultural display-treasure, the kind of old dude that old dudes will dangle as some kind of trouncingly authentic measure of their own incomparable teenage ultimacy.
No doubt Bowie can avoid this fate. Genuine talent steps outside such narrow boundaries and his new single is a lovely thing. Plus Bowie has already bridged this same old-dude hiatus several times in his career. When he reappeared on Top of the Pops as Let's Dance-era David Bowie in the mid-1980s I can remember finding him very confusing at first, assuming sympathetically that there must be something fundamentally quite wrong with this sweating waxwork propped up in a roadside speakeasy twitching and grimacing and shouting about the serious moonlight. He seemed troubled. Perhaps he was having problems using his legs. In the middle of his next single China Girl, which is about having a Chinese girlfriend, Bowie suddenly shouted out "VISIONS OF SWASTIKAS IN MY HEAD!". If I'd been friends with Bowie's girlfriend at that point I'd have probably had a quiet word. I'm just not sure David's right for you. I know he's nice. I know he dresses well. But I think he has visions of swastikas In his head. No. No, don't call him.
In the event Bowie just slipped back into the swim of things, propelled by the simple fact of his own enduring talent, that mixed bag of glass-spider swastika-headed cross-generational brilliance, as he has again now pretty much straight off the bat: priestly, restrained, dressed simply in his favourite alien sex-jumpsuit, and looking as ever like the only man in the world who really understands how all this works.
And while it might seem on the face of it that Bowie has absolutely nothing at all to do with football, his presence was conjured again from an unexpected source during Swansea's Capital One Cup defeat of Chelsea in midweek at a toxic and terribly discontented Stamford Bridge. "Oi Torres! I could do BETTER than THAT!" an angry in the home seats shouted as Chelsea's £50m record signing left the pitch, in the process (a) quoting word for word complete with the correct cadences and stresses a lyric from Queen Bitch, Bowie's 1971 tribute to the Velvet Underground; and (b) raising a very interesting broader footballing question.
Torres was bad against Swansea in a way footballers aren't often bad, going through the familiar muscle-memory patterns of being a footballer, still running and jogging and twisting and turning, but in a way that seemed horribly fractured and awkward, like a tearful moon-faced forgetful child being forced again to do PE in his underpants. For once the suggestion that you could actually do better than that seemed, if in no way likely to be answered in the affirmative, then at least partly relevant.
This is after all a question everybody who watches football has asked themselves, even those of us who exist at a level of dismal park-pitch mediocrity.
My most recent personal assessment is that if I were to play the entire 90 minutes up front for Chelsea in every Premier League match for a full season, with the whole team geared towards providing me with ammunition – Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar playing just behind me, both full-backs pushing on constantly to provide me with crosses – I would probably score five goals. Stumbling, dizzy and incoherent with fatigue, I think I could force the ball over the line perhaps three times from open play, bobbled in off a heel or a shin, or perhaps, after some particularly fine Mata-Hazard interplay, poked into an open goal after a series of tearful air kicks. The other two goals would be penalties (I would insist on taking all the penalties) although even then it's hard to be sure. I've taken a penalty against a professional goalkeeper and what strikes you is how laughably slow-motion your shooting suddenly seems, how pathetically lacking in fizz, your finest corner-bound spank plucked tamely out of the air.
You probably think you could do better, but you couldn't.
In fact one of the remaining measures of distance between our relentlessly over-exposed elite footballers and those who pay to watch them is the enduring and unbridgeable gulf in basic physicality. This is particularly the case with footballers of the last 10 years, who have generally coalesced into a single highly specialised ideal of unattainable athleticism.
Obvious exceptions aside, footballers are no longer lanky, gangly, beefy, spidery and so on. They are instead almost uniformly lithe and Olympian, their bodies remorselessly optimum-scaled, narrower, stringier, more compact. I recently interviewed a Premier League defender and was struck by his basic absence of anticipated human bulk, his otherworldly dinkiness, a frame that looked so hulking and brutish on television but which in the flesh had me worrying that if I turned around too quickly I might accidentally squash him.
It hasn't always been this way. Years ago I used to see legendary Millwall midfield bouncer Terry Hurlock jogging around the streets of south london, and in a normal human setting even his head seemed frighteningly vast, stretched across between his tumbling curls like three heads jammed into one, hands like dustbin lids, arms as thick as legs, feet like breezeblocks.
In pre-modern times there might have been some physical common ground, a meeting point where I-could-do-better-than-that might have been briefly tested. Not now. No way. Trying to play football against a proper modern footballer is instead a really good way of discovering that some human beings really can do very difficult things much better than you. Some people get to be Bowie. While you, you're the bloke who stands at the back in Boyzone dancing and looking upset.
Last year I made the mistake of playing 11-a-side football against a team that had Robert Pires in it, Pires who had only recently been jeered away from a short spell at Aston Villa, unfit, slow, old and generally I-could-do-better-than-that. And still trying to play against him was like pitting yourself against a Victorian ghost, the kind of eyeless spectre that comes veering past oblivious to your material existence, moving not just faster, but as though he has a Matrix-like vision of the space behind the space, angles and gaps and possibilities invisible to the human eye, already out of reach even as you start to flail and yank and hack at this neat little goatee-bearded silhouette.
For all the tears it was still a salutary experience, and one that suggested perhaps footballers deserve a little more species-respect than they are currently allowed. Fantastically well paid as they are, there is a basic absence of any finer consideration for these expertly-poised human beings, floating in their tin can high above the world, rarefied performers who basically enter the stocks twice a week in order to be jeered and howled at by normal people in exchange for money. They are, despite a consensus of near-inconsolable revulsion, engaged in a form of high-stakes physical ballet so well calibrated that even a moment's slackness can look like evidence of irrecoverable decline. And as a kind of apology for the ongoing obsession with Torres it is worth pointing out there is legitimate human interest here, not least as an indication of the fine margins at which these jeered and goaded and roughhoused specimens of species-level athletic intelligence operate.
There is a tendency to promote the idea of an egalitarianism of universal mediocrity, to deny that things like talent or expertise actual exist, and that the ability to take part is the same as actually being good at taking part. It is nice sometimes to celebrate a little what the evidence suggests, that not everyone gets to be Bowie. Just as not everyone including – fascinatingly, and apparently for years at a time, Fernando Torres – gets to be Fernando Torres.