I used to play basketball with this guy named, well, let’s call him Joe. Off the field, Joe was a nice guy. When we were sitting on the bench waiting to get back into the game, he would talk to me about my family or my love life and was variously insightful, funny, and charming — he never failed to make me laugh when I needed it. After the games I would go to his house for parties and drank many beers with Joe and again I never saw a single raised voice or even an angry moment from Joe.
But in the game, Joe wasn’t Joe. Joe was a cheater and a liar: every call had to go his way, even the ones that were wrong. Whenever Joe played, the game devolved into a screaming match over some perceived foul that Joe called or wanted called. Joe was also overly physical and played dangerously and with little care for the safety of his fellow players: if you tried to box him out on a rebound he would climb over your back, foul you to get the rebound, and then swing his elbows to clear out space. Joe was, to be blunt, a fucking asshole.
At first it was funny and I laughed it off. He wasn’t always some crazy rage-beast and so I took the good Joe, the non-ball playing Joe, to be his real personality. But that rage was always bubbling under the surface and it could erupt at any moment. Eventually, that sports Joe erupted into his real life. Without getting into too many details, Joe was caught stealing money, lost his job, lost his wife and now, from what I hear because I don’t play basketball anymore, he’s still the same old Joe.
I’ve been playing sports my whole life and I’ve seen a lot of Joes – these guys who are sweet and friendly off the field and a terrible menace on the field – and a few years back I came up with a theory: if you ever want to get to really know someone, play sports with them. Sports is the kind of heated, competitive environment where people make instinctual decisions without the benefit of a cold shower and a fortnight’s thinking. If Joe’s instinctual decision is to snap into a harsh tackle whenever he loses the ball, that’s how he will act when the chips are down in real life too.
I was doing some research on Arsène Wenger’s first North London derby a few weeks back and I came across a quote from Wenger which confirmed my theory. When Wenger took over Arsenal, the players were well known for what the British press call “anti-social behaviour”. Merson and Adams were confirmed alcoholics which seems to be the only disease that is a crime in England.
On the field, Arsenal had Ian Wright who had a reputation as a bad-boy with the officials. And whether they were deserved or not, Arsenal were second in the League in bookings. To this very day Arsène is abused for the number of red cards his teams gather¹.
And so, in that context, Arsène was asked what he thought of the personality of his team and he responded in his usual insightful way:
The real revelation of a player’s character is not in his social life but how he plays. In social life I can hide my real personality, but when I’m playing, I show my real self because it’s important to win. You see the real character of a player not off the field but on it.²
Jack Wilshere continues this tradition of supposed bad-boys off the field. His sins so far are that he’s a (not so) secret smoker, though I am starting to wonder if he isn’t also a secret gluten eater. And we all know that gluten is the devil.
But on the field, Wilshere is just a fiery midfielder who stands up to bullies, who is creative, and who can pick apart a team with a mazy dribble or incisive pass. He’s not afraid to tackle a player and he will even stand up to a Jonas Olsen who is, like, 17 times his size.
Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas can give all the interviews he wants to about how much he respects Arsenal and what Arsène has done for his career, but in the Chelsea v. Arsenal match, Cesc let his true feelings be known: here he is tackling Welbeck from behind, after the whistle had blown. It was a dirty, chippy, little play from the former Arsenal captain and I think a bit of insight into his true personality.
We all have our outward social facade that we would like everyone to believe is our true self. And we all hide bits of our personality from the world, only showing the nasty stuff to the ones we love (oh how they love us that they put up with our nasty bits). But if you really want to get to know someone, to break through that thin exterior shell, just play football with them. And the first time they slide tackle you, studs up, from behind, after the whistle has blown, you’ll know… this guy? He’s an asshole.
¹Arsenal have three red cards already this season (2013/2014) all in Champions League play, just in case you hadn’t heard in, ohh… the last 10 minutes or so.
²Beauty is any kind of goal against Spurs, says Wenger - David Lacey, The Guardian, November 23rd 1996