Crying is ok: Tackling one of football’s oldest stigmas

Football is steeped in misplaced masculinity, and it is important to talk about myths and stigmas. Crying is one such act that is easily condescended at, overlooking the emotional, mental and physical trauma elite athletes often have to endure throughout their careers to function at a certain level.
Art by Charbak Dipta

On 19 September, Cristiano Ronaldo woke up with a feeling of bliss tickling his stomach – unaware yet of the upcoming conflict that would etch his reputation for months/years to come. However, this article is not about that. It was Wednesday, a Champions League Wednesday. Valencia v Juventus on the first match day of the latest European Cup edition. A game that was predominantly billed as Ronaldo’s Champions League debut under La Vecchia Signora’s flag. Alas, as many of you undoubtedly noticed, not everything went accordingly that evening.

Even though Ronaldo began the game well, instigating two clear-cut opportunities for his team, he soon allowed himself to be provoked by provocation. At the 29th minute, Jeison Murillo fell (arguably without reason) at the side of his own penalty box. Ronaldo, as temperamental as he is, thought he had seen enough, and hence decided to lay a hand on the Columbian. In a matter of split-seconds, he moved his hand hastily, before slowing it down a little and finally settling for a brief ruffling.

The act didn’t go down well amid the non-Juventini present on the pitch. The sequence concluded when Felix Brych, convinced by his assistant Marco Fritz, showed a red card to Ronaldo. The usual protagonist couldn’t believe his fate, shattered to tears and exited the pasture a devastated man.

Through their red lenses, Empire of the Kop tweeted about the incident: “… the man’s nearly 34 [actually four and a half months short of that number]. Having a tantrum and crying. He’s won the competition the last three years. Catch a grip for fuck’s sake.”

Cry baby was at it again, it seemed.

Unlike a certain Argentinian, Ronaldo has worn his heart on his sleeve ever since he emerged back in 2004. Make no mistake, however, Lionel Messi’s no stranger to crying. He cries in pursuit of World Cup dream, cries after missing Champions League semi-final penalties, and cries like a little kid who’s lost his mother in the aftermath of the Copa América Centenario final. The difference between the pair is that when the good boy does sob, he doesn’t do it publicly.

And why would he, seeing that it’s only encouraged if one hopes to get lynched?

Moments of passion and emotional exposure are ever so often interpreted as someone paying their duties into the common pot of modern cowardness and melodrama. Letting your tears flow makes you the paragon of this unwanted quality.

When prominent members of the Brazilian platoon — Neymar, David Luiz and Júlio César — wept tears during and after their 2014 World Cup round of 16 tie against Chile, signs of discord were voiced by the public. Particular criticism was aimed at Thiago Silva, who explicitly asked not to be selected among the penalty takers. The president of the São Paulo Association of Sport Psychology, John Ricardo Cozac, said the body language and behaviour of the squad “demonstrated a dangerous lack of emotional control“.

As 1970 World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto concluded that they were not mentally tough enough, Silva’s tears became the talk of the entire country. “The players have to stop crying and focus on playing football,” Cafu proclaimed.

Four years later in Russia, the Brazilians were at it again, with Neymar bursting into tears after an eventual 2–0 group stage victory over Costa Rica. Once more he was accused of not being able to handle the pressure, and Eric Cantona demanded to see no more crocodile tears.

However, Neymar Junior was just another name in a long list of crying footballers; Javier Hernández, Son Heung-min, Ángel Di María, Sergio Ramos and José Giménez all had their emotions spilt over. Former Manchester United captain and England international Gary Neville wasn’t too happy to see Giménez’s tears before full-time, flagging the incident as “embarrassing”.

Shut up, man up and ‘focus on playing football’.

Even Paul Scholes implicitly supported this idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ following the tears of injured Dani Carvajal and Mohamed Salah in the 2018 Champions League final. “I can understand [Loris] Karius, I suppose, he’s devastated at what’s happened, but injuries are part of the game. If you go back years and you saw somebody crying on the pitch, they’d have had a whole load of stick for it. Now it’s a different game, players are sensitive and they get upset easily.”

If you were not able or even felt the need to show your inability to cope sometimes, you should not go around chiding people who do so nevertheless.

Scholes is someone who doesn’t comprehend the cathartic dimension that crying precedes. In the center of a high-pressured, public cyclone, weeping tears is a healthy way to escape from the chains of sporting misfortune and failure. Imagine waiting for your moment to come in the Champions League or an international tournament, only to see your hopes get ripped in front of a poisonous (and I mean poisonous) audience. To go matter-of-fact would be more obscure than shedding a few tears.

And it’s not just the social pressure that drive the best sportspeople down the emotional rollercoaster, but physical as well. Swimmer Michael Phelps took four days off between 2004 and 2008, and no one should pay a visit to the dark world of Cristiano Ronaldo as he never stops training. At least that’s what Patrice Evra said.

Training as a professional sportsperson can be abundantly demanding and isolating. A rogue way to go about one’s business. Is it actually possible for a few tears to nullify years of toil and ‘toughness’? Or is crying a way of releasing suppressed emotions?

How much can crying even affect one’s performance?

In the summer of 2014, Chile managed to get only two penalties out of the maximum five past the emotional wreck that was Júlio César. Moreover, Silva was blazing throughout that tournament, with his absence causing Brazil’s defence to fall apart against Germany.

This year, Giménez wasn’t even remotely at fault for Uruguay’s 0–2 defeat. And yes, Carvajal cried a little after suffering a hamstring injury but that’s OK. After all, the man has heavily contributed in four Champions League triumphs, the number being two times higher than Paul Scholes’ equivalent.

Salah snivelled. It’s OK. The outlook of the most important club game of the season changed after his departure, and his World Cup hopes had been driven into jeopardy by Sergio Ramos. Salah’s 42 goals stayed 42 even after those tears.

You’d think Paul Gascoigne’s wobbling lips at Italia ‘90 would’ve redeemed elite players from the shame of crying, but no. Perhaps the fact that these tears of his contributed to England’s semi-final defeat has something to do with the unwelcoming reception. Having seen yellow, Gascoigne crumbled to little pieces, couldn’t focus on the task in hand, and refused to take a penalty in the eventual shoot-out. He was so out of place and so was his substitute taker, Chris Waddle.

The latter skied his shot, the shot that the former was scheduled to take, and hence sealed the gate that prevented England from reaching the final.

Crying is part of the game, now more than ever. Good thing is it does not hurt anybody. Weeping is a tad like players showing off ostentatious haircuts or launching light-hearted tweets on social media. Many get discomposed by it for no good reason. Just let the poor men sob a little.

It doesn’t take anything away from products of conservative framework.

Juuso Kilpeläinen

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.