Losing the Fire
Fighting to retain his WBC Welterweight crown in 1980 against Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran sensationally quit in the eighth round, whispering the infamous words “no mas” (no more), that would define his 119 fight career. But what else can athletes do when their fire burns out?
After sacrificing everything, success comes definitively with a title win or championship, but now contracts and career plans form an arc that inevitably describes your slow demise, or sudden implosion. Sometimes you need to go out on your own terms. Eric Cantona quit at 30 after a season that showed hints of decline.
“When you quit football it is not easy, your life becomes difficult. I should know because sometimes I feel I quit too young. I loved the game but I no longer had the passion to go to bed early, not to go out with my friends, not to drink, and not to do a lot of other things, the things I like in life.”
Cantona bowed out in the full glare of the spotlight, instead of waiting for the footlights to fade. But, like his (in)famous seagulls and sardines comment, he knew that the birds would soon find other fish to feed on:
“I’m so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose.”
The recent loss of Gary Speed threw our moral compass off kilter. At the inquest his wife revealed his talk of suicide. A married monogamous man with two children, a stellar playing career and a burgeoning Welsh coaching role camouflaged the fact that, to a “deep man” who “didn’t relish the limelight,” success had no value. We needed to know why he made the ultimate exit, but there was no revealing suicide note or lurid tales of drug abuse and infidelities to rationalise his act, no feet of clay from the man at the end of the bar who used to be Someone. Perhaps he was the ultimate victim of success. The fire to reach the top quenched by a fear of failure amidst consistent achievement. Looking in from the outside, we barely understand their conflicting feelings after success. The selfless sacrifices that achieved the victories cease, but the same levels of performance are demanded week after week: it’s their Difficult Second Album.
In his excellent autobiography, Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino, the Irish striker’s “little voice” convinced him, at key moments, he was destined to fail. Excessive gambling was an effective way to prove the voice right; the inevitable failure of a gambler became his escape from the rigid, repetitive structures of training and playing. Compounded by numerous infidelities, Cascarino became successful at failure when his career was increasingly a failure of success, but at least he accepted the brutal truth of the collateral damage his self harming behaviour caused:
“I was so wrapped up in my newfound celebrity that I’d become immune to the suffering I was causing”.
Cascarino’s honest assessment revealed the sportsman’s haunting paradox: unable to enjoy your status, but trapped inside it:
“I play football because I have to play football. I play football because I know nothing else.”
Carlos Teves accepted his £9.3 million pounds hit in fines, lost wages and bonuses, but the preceding events showed a man uncomfortable with his role. In 2010 he revealed to current Muang Thong target Roque Santa Cruz that he was “not enjoying the life of a footballer.” Tevez’s consistent plea that he missed his Argentinian family is dangerously off message and honest for crowds vicariously living their life through him. The need to dream ramps up the pressure to provide escape. When the drudge and sacrifice of humdrum existence shuffles towards the weekend, fans don’t want to hear about brittle minds and homesickness.They demand pedestals and perfection. As a grieving Brazilian woman said about Ayrton Senna’s death:
“Brazilians need food, education and health and a little joy. The joy has been removed.”
People didn’t want to hear about Senna’s sacrifices, his hatred of the politics and money dominated world of Formula One. When asked for his favourite career memories he described the season in go – karting. That, he said, was racing; pure racing. But he couldn’t leave his high octane world any other way than that tragic exit. In tough economic times he represented the last piece of national pride many Brazilians felt. Walking away would not be a Cantona deification, but a nation let down. Like a drug, racing held him too firmly anyway. He needed the intensity to make him feel at peace with himself.
Unlike Formula 1 or boxing, an old football pro can glimpse moments of former glory. A fighter may train and a driver may practice, but they will never relive the white hot intensity of competition . A footballer can play for Plymouth and score at Old Trafford in a cup match, where he conjures something special from his muscles’ memory. These are dreams he clings to on the coach to Crewe.
Players tumbling down the divisions are often seen as faintly desperate; but doing it on their own terms, as Speed did dropping down from Newcastle to Bolton and then Sheffield United, keeps their dignity and self determination. Players are a short time playing and a long time retired. There are worse things than hoping for one last hoorah before the end. The alternatives are often too grim to contemplate.