It is easy to get so wrapped up in a person’s ability to kick a ball well that his or her humanity is forgotten. Joel Slagle examines Tiémoué Bakayoko, and how his failure tells us more about ourselves than we care to admit.
Cicero wrote that we are not born for ourselves alone; our country and our friends have placed a claim on our lives. For those born as footballers, fans have a partial lien as well. When a player joins a club, he becomes, for better or worse, “ours.” The weekend before the international break saw a fine example of the contrasting fortunes two signings brought to their respective fan bases.
First, the bad: there was another woeful performance from Tiemoue Bakayoko for Chelsea in the FA Cup. When the big Frenchman arrived for £40m over the summer, it looked a good signing. He was a key member of the Monaco team that had wrested the Ligue 1 title from PSG and made a superb run to the semifinals of the Champions League. He was one of the most promising defensive midfielders in Europe. Nemanja Matic’s contract was running down, and Bakayoko looked a dynamic upgrade on the big Serb. Everything was in place for Antonio Conte to ease him into the side as Matic’s understudy.
And then Chelsea sold Matic to Manchester United. Bakayoko was rushed back from a long-term knee injury and played his first football in months at Wembley against Spurs. He was obviously rusty, but he was a warrior in the center of the park, going the full 90 minutes. It was the apogee of his season.
That promising beginning makes his decline all the more perplexing. Less than a year ago, he was challenging for a place in Didier Deschamps’ stacked French midfield. He now has difficulty completing nine-yard passes. Bakayoko’s last two starts were especially painful. He was the headline after Chelsea’s 4-1 loss to Watford last month – getting sent off in the 30th minute. His display up to that point led to the joke going around that his sending off hurt the Hornets by removing their best attacker. It was not terribly far from the truth.
A month and a half after his sending off, he finally got a chance to redeem himself against Leicester in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He did not take it. He was not especially bad, but he was not good either. It was no surprise when Conte replaced him at halftime with Cesc Fabregas.
If Chelsea fans were able to convince themselves that Bakayoko simply needed time to adjust to a new team and city, Mohamed Salah’s sparkling performance against Watford that same weekend put paid to that sophistry. The speedy Egyptian is enjoying a superb first season in Liverpool and grabbed four goals. The irony of a Chelsea reject lighting up the Premier League was not lost on anyone.
Salah arrived in London from Basel in 2014 as a replacement for Juan Mata. The young winger had scored against Chelsea three times in three games in the Champions League and had also attracted the attention of Liverpool. Despite his obvious potential, he appeared somewhat misplaced on the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Barney Ronay described him as “an eager figure haring off down the right wing while his manager lurked and barked and burped on the touchline, never quite at ease with this scuttling force of attacking will.”
It was hardly surprising when he was sent out on loan to Fiorentina and then Roma. Serie A was an ideal proving ground, and the Giallorossi made the move permanent. Four years after signing for the Blues, he is lighting up England’s top flight, but for Liverpool. The failed signing who could not break into Chelsea’s starting lineup is now leading the race for the Premier League’s Golden Boot. And in that, a disturbing pattern emerges.
Chelsea’s impatience with Salah (and Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku) was an obvious mistake. Every club has made mistakes in the transfer market though. Missteps and failure are difficult concepts in football, but they are necessary for learning. For example, every director of football now knows goals in the Eredivisie do not translate to goals in the Premier League. For every Luis Suarez, there is an Afonso Alves.
Alves had scored 48 goals in 48 appearances for Dutch club Heerenveen and looked destined for bigger and better things. Middlesbrough stole a march on the big club and signed him up in January of 2008.
Boro was my dad’s team, and I was excited to follow the Brazilian’s exploits. He did not set the league alight in the first half of that season, but he did manage a few goals. His brace against eventual league champions Manchester United, in particular, hinted at more goals to come. Surely, everyone thought, after a period of adjustment and a full preseason it was only a matter of time before the goals would flow. The Riverside faithful certainly thought so and even had a banner made: “BORO GOAL MACHINE.” He scored just four Premier League goals in 31 appearances. Middlesbrough was relegated, and the Brazilian quietly decamped to the Middle East.
I desperately wanted him to succeed, if only for my dad’s sake. It is kind of a fun game to think of the worst signing you most wanted to succeed. It is less toxic than the simple question of who was the worst signing. It is asking who you believed in. Who was the player that didn’t make you angry, but just sad.
For many Arsenal fans, Andrei Arshavin from Zenit springs to mind. I was living in St. Petersburg at the time, and Arshavin was its favorite son after winning the UEFA Cup with his hometown club and leading the Russian national team to the semifinals of Euro 2008. His face was everywhere: billboards, shop windows, posters on every wall, and in every other television commercial. He was a supremely talented, creative attacker with a history of big-game performances. It was easy to see why Arsene Wenger wanted him.
And the little Russian did not disappoint with his early showings, the highlight being his amazing four-goal haul against Liverpool. I gloated to my friends because I had told them what a big star he would be in the Premier League. But then came the decline. Then further decline. Fans were mystified how such a gifted player could suddenly turn in such poor performances.
What supporters did not know was how unpleasant life in London had become for Arshavin. Living in another country is difficult in the best of circumstances, and culture shock hit hard. As he became increasingly isolated from his teammates, he also split up with his wife. I did not know any of this though. I just saw a player who had let me down personally by not proving to be the success I had predicated. In a weird way, my desire for the Arsenal attacker to do well dehumanized him for me.
It is easy to get so wrapped up in a person’s ability to kick a ball well (or not so well, as the case may be) that his or her humanity is forgotten. Fantasy football is an extreme example of this. The entire sport and all of its participants are reduced to the individual pleasure and experience of fantasy football managers. I have still not forgiven Andy Carroll for a poor showing in a double game week years ago. I am also ashamed to admit I have cheered injuries to certain players.
However, a player going through a rough period can also bring out nobler instincts. Chelsea fans, for example, have seen a number of failed number nines pass through the club during the Roman Abramovich era. Mateja Kezman, scorer of 105 goals in 122 appearances in the Netherlands, was a disaster at Stamford Bridge. His ineffective, headless-chicken pressing always got a big cheer from the supporters, though.
And then there is Fernando Torres, the gold standard by which all failed signings are judged. El Nino is a classic example in that he arrived with huge expectations and a hefty price tag only to completely forget how to play football. And, yet, Chelsea fans (for the most part) did not turn on him. When David Luiz laid hands on him and prayed for him at the beginning of a match, we too whispered a prayer to whatever cosmic force could help Torres find the back of the net. The fact that he scored 20 goals during his time at the club is a testament to Luiz’s spiritual powers and to supporters willing the ball over the line. So devoted are these fans, it is still possible to get abuse from a subset of them for having the temerity to suggest Torres’ time in west London was anything but success.
A player going through a really, really bad patch rightly elicits sympathy rather than anger. It feels mean and small to kick a man while he is down. The reason why it feels so wrong is that we all know, deep down, that fortune is a fickle mistress and “there but for the grace of God, go I.”
After all, most of us have gone through a difficult period in our work or studies. Thankfully, our coworkers did not crowd around our cubicle to chant, “You’re f***ing s***!” You’re f***ing s***!”
The good news is that failure is not a permanent condition. Not only is it not permanent, but it can also be quite helpful on occasion. Circling back to Cicero: “We must not say every mistake is a foolish one.” How different would Salah’s career be if he had gone to Liverpool in 2014 instead of taking the long route via Serie A for example?
Another example from Italy comes from the life of Leonardo da Vinci. He too was a talented young man with enormous potential, but he failed to deliver on his first major project. Too much too soon, as they say, and his early career was ruined. However, he never stopped believing in his own abilities. He did not complete his first masterpiece until the age of 46. So, perhaps there is still hope for Tiemoue Bakayoko.