This week has brought home, in as dramatic a way as I ever recall, the joy and the sadness, the ecstasy and the agony, I suppose the smiles and the tears, that sports bring with them.
It might have been any sport, but in this case it was our sport. Soccer. On Sunday we learned that Jimmy Greaves has suffered a serious stroke. That name, that simple name, may not mean too much to today’s fans, which is a great pity.
Jimmy played in England from 1957 to 1971. Not all that long ago, but time marches so quickly and so brutally on. Already the photographs of Greaves in action, so many of them in black and white, look dated.
A terrible lie, that. There was nothing dated about Greaves. I saw quite a lot of him in his first two years as a youngster with Chelsea. He played his first game as a 17-year-old, and he scored a goal. Well, the previous season with Chelsea youth team, he’d been running riot, scoring 122 goals, averaging close to three goals a game.
And that prolific goalscoring never stopped, never, throughout his 14-year career. In 157 games with Chelsea he scored 124 goals. In 1961 A.C. Milan signed him (a rare move -- English players were not then -- indeed, are not now -- in much demand in Europe). Greaves had a miserable homesick time in Italy, lasted only long enough to play in 12 games. In which he managed to score 9 goals.
Back in England, he joined Tottenham Hotspur. Games played: 321. Goals scored 220. It was the same story with England -- 57 appearances, 44 goals. With the England under-23 teams, he averaged over a goal a game -- 13 goals in 12 games.
The beauty - and, yes, that is the right word, the only word that tells the tale -- of Greaves’s play came from the smooth artistry of everything he did. At 5-foot-8 he was not a big man, not at all in the long English tradition of bulky, bruising No. 9s (though his coach at Chelsea, Ted Drake, had been just such a player for Arsenal).
Even so, Greaves practiced his artistry in the hard world of English first division soccer, where vigorous tackling and heavy shoulder-charging dominated. Greaves survived -- and those stats tell you he did more, he dominated.
He was -- certainly for me -- a joy to watch, quicker and sharper and smoother than his opponents. Always. The goals came as a result of those instincts, most of them -- well, most of those I recall -- scored from within the penalty area.
The movement and the ball control seemed always just right, just what was needed at that moment, no more no less, the finish was also whatever was needed, a vicious blast of the ball, a carefully aimed side-foot, a neat header.
Somebody -- actually, it may have been Greaves himself -- said his “secret” was that he was always so cool and unhurried in the penalty area. I think so, that seemed likely. It went with Greaves’ image of a happy boy, a cheeky, chirpy, London Cockney spirit who enjoyed every second of what he was doing. Though he wasn’t strictly a Cockney, having been born in Essex, but apart from that dismal 1961 interlude in Italy, all of his pro career was played with London clubs -- Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham.
For Greaves, soccer -- which meant goalscoring to him -- was a simple affair. He just did it. He came up with a wonderful comment on the theories of the new breed of technical coaches who were beginning to gain influence in England in the 1960s: “Listening to them, you’d think it must be easier to split the atom than to score a goal.”
Greaves had his post-career problems with alcohol, but he went on to become a much admired and loved TV star. The cockney humor was infectious.
If only we had more Jimmy Greaveses and fewer atom-splitters on the field today, how much better a game soccer would be.
Get well, Jimmy.
From sadness to joy. But still with beauty. On Wednesday we saw Lionel Messi score two magnificent goals for Barcelona. Goals that were born of pure soccer artistry. I don’t need to extol the virtues of Messi the soccer player -- especially not at this moment, when he is being hailed as “the greatest ever.” Maybe so, if such a thing can ever be proved.
But Messi from Argentina and Greaves from Essex, so far apart geographically, are blood bothers is soccer. Players who always seem to have fun, who play with boyish glee. Beyond that they have something else in common. Greaves is 5-8. Messi is 5-7.
For soccer giants, they are small men. Is that their secret then? I admit, I think that way. I was already thinking along those lines in England in the late 1940s when I watched a lot of Arsenal games. A good team at that time. The star -- well, the teenage me appointed him the star -- was their Scottish inside forward Jimmy Logie. It seems to be agreed nowadays that Logie (he died in 1984) was 5-4 tall. Or short. Which seems impossible, but may well be the truth. He was always the smallest player on view. And usually the best. A wee bundle of trickery and of course artistry.
Just like Diego Maradona (5-5), Pele (5-8), Romario (5-6), Landon Donovan (5-8) and many more. Even Johann Cruyff, who was 5-11 can be added. For he was as slender and lithe as a willow. Not a physical presence.
Players of surpassing brilliance who were never going to dominate any game with physical play. To succeed in soccer they had to develop the real, the true soccer skills, the ones that make the sport special. In plain English, they had to become real soccer players.
Sometimes I fear that these specially gifted small players are disappearing from the game. Probably not. But there is always the fear that they will be bullied out of it by the loud voices that keep calling for physical play, that like to remind us, in braying tones, that soccer is “a man’s game, it’s a contact sport.” The ones who currently bang on about “going down too easily,” the ones who are always so ready to find excuses for violent play.
Quite definitely, I have reached the stage when I no longer have the slightest patience with those guys. Do they really want a sport without Greaves or Pele or Messi or Donovan? A sport in which hard-tackling iron-men are allowed to stamp on artistry whenever it manages to surface. A sport in which fouls that involve tripping or mugging the artists are called “good fouls.” And where anything that looks like real soccer is sneeringly called “tippy-tappy” play -- that was John Terry’s recent put-down of Arsenal.
Against this Neanderthal thinking, there has always been a thin line of the sport’s very best players, determined to show that a true soccer game is one that showcases soccer skills. Not one that looks like rugby.
Soccer owes a huge debt to all those little guys -- very much including Jimmy Greaves -- who have graced and enlivened the game in the past, and to the incomparable Lionel Messi who, with skill and superb artistry, leads the sport today.