When I was very young, the best footballer in the world – probably the best ever – played for my local team. My first set of colouring pencils bore his name; they were the only ones you could buy. Throughout the 80s, statues of the Madonna were gradually removed from their alcoves on street corners all over Napoli and replaced with busts of her near-namesake. Football in Italy is played on a Sunday, and while I would attend the Anglican church with my family and wait for them to drink tea with their expat friends, a far less genteel, but more religious, ceremony would be going on outside. What seemed like the entire population of this most chaotic and downtrodden of cities would clog the streets leading to the Stadio San Paolo, leaning on their car horns in a raucous, polyphonic hymn to their little god. Everyone was having a great time, not least of all el Diego himself; by the end of the decade, the high life was taking its toll, and he began the long and sad descent into addiction and obesity. I never saw him play.
By the time Maradona retired from the game in 1997, there was another fat footballer in my life: an unfit, big-nosed Guernseyman by the name of Matthew le Tissier. This time I didn’t miss out. I’d get down to The Dell early on Saturday afternoons just to be sure. The team would be warming up near the centre circle, stretching, running and passing, but le Tissier would leave them to it. He would wander off to about 35 yards from goal, his ideal range, and get the reserve keeper to pop him balls to hit on the half-volley – and in they would go, again and again, with miraculous grace, power and accuracy. Bang! Top corner. Bang! In off the bar. Bang! In off the post. The first team goalie just stood on his line and waved them in. That was it. Le God’s warm-up was over, and off he would stroll to the dressing room for a bag of crisps and a Coke before kick-off.
Anyone with a passing interest in English football remembers the outrageous goals with which le Tissier kept lowly Southampton FC in the Premiership year after year. There’s the flicked-up free kick against Wimbledon, the casual missile in the autumn sunshine at Highfield Road, and of course Goal of the Season 1994-5, under the floodlights at Ewood Park, when he receives the ball on the halfway line and turns a defender one way, then the other, before unleashing a euphoric, parabolic firework of a shot into the top corner from staggering distance. The Blackburn fans can’t help but applaud.
Now that the romance of football has been squeezed out of it by dodgy oligarchs, Arab oil money, dieticians, spit-roasts and John Terry, we can be forgiven for looking back at le Tissier with nostalgia. He was the last great amateur player (in its original sense, that is: a lover of the game) in an age of encroaching professionalism and seriousness. He played against the best in the world and embarrassed them effortlessly. But something rankles with me about his reputation. While lauded on the one hand for his flair, he is condemned on the other for being lazy and lacking ambition. If only he’d made the most of his talent, they say. He could have moved to bigger clubs for more money. He could have made it at international level. Maradona’s problem was that he played too hard; Le Tissier’s, apparently, was that he didn’t work hard enough.
To subscribe to this opinion is to misunderstand the true nature of his achievements. There are sensible and rather dull rebuttals to the criticisms above, one being that as a player le Tissier thrived in a free role, providing the creative magic while his teammates did all the running and tackling. This is certainly how he saw himself. In his autobiography he warns Wayne Rooney not to become a ‘victim of his own work-rate’, advising him to ‘stop running around so much – it worked for me’. But there is a more important point. Le Tissier’s greatness lay in how he expressed himself on the pitch. He played with joy, humour and nonchalance, and never took it too seriously. This is the kind of guy he was. Hard work did not suit his game, because it wasn’t in his nature. The Greeks, who knew a bit about the relationship between athletic prowess and the life well-lived, had a word for this: eudaimonia, or fulfilment of character. Le Tissier fulfilled himself by doing what he loved. He became at once what he had always been and also what he was destined to become. What greater ambition could there be? Everything else followed. He had great friends in his teammates and won the admiration and respect of a whole community. If he achieved all that without breaking sweat, then so much the better for him.
We can’t all be like le Tissier. Most of us must, like his teammates, work hard to achieve anything, even if we are doing what we love. But we should see his eudaimonic fulfilment as an aspiration. Le Tissier’s critics are right: he didn’t make the most of his talent. He made the best of it. To ‘make the most’ of something is to derive the maximum return from it, to squeeze out a profit. Le Tissier could have moved clubs for far more money, uprooted his family, left his friends and fans behind, played in a team that didn’t let him thrive as much and ended up sitting on the bench: rich, unhappy and unfulfilled.
Hard work is an unavoidable reality for most people in the world. But capitalism, with its mantra that enough is never enough, has disguised it a virtuous quality rather than a slavish quantity: we barely notice when ‘hard-working’ is smuggled in alongside ‘honest’ or ‘decent’, as though somehow these things go hand in hand. There is nothing virtuous about an adherence to the grindstone. I am sure the bankers who presided over the demise of the global economic system worked hard, along with the corporate lawyers who busted a gut to save them money and the accountants who fiddled their figures long into the night. And there is nothing admirable either about those suffering the worst effects of free market capitalism’s inherent violence and injustice – those millions for whom hard, dehumanising work is less a way of life than a life sentence. Hard work for its own sake, without fulfilment, is without merit; if anything it deserves pity.
The ideology of hard work has seeped insidiously into our thought and language. Take its near-synonym, industry. If you can find a way of making a profit, you can call it an industry. This is an instance of convenient unspeak; instead of declaring that they profit from manipulating reputations, or persuading people to buy things they don’t need, or unfairly influencing the democratic process, the relevant corporations can simply say that they are part of the PR/advertising/lobbying industry. As long as it’s called an industry, with its connotations of people beavering away obediently and generating profits, no-one needs to think about the effect of their work on the rest of world or on themselves.
The idea that hard work is something we should knuckle down to unthinkingly is also encapsulated in the concept of the ‘work/life balance’, another feint of language designed to sugar the corporate pill. Several things are lurking within this distinction. If work can somehow be cordoned off from the rest of life it enables us to abnegate responsibility for it, to put it in a shameful box and not think too hard about its consequences. There is also the vain hope that, by separating work from life, it somehow won’t affect who we are and what we become, despite the fact it’s how we spend the majority of our adult lives. And then there’s the disturbing inference that working doesn’t quite qualify in the same category as living, that it’s an animal or undead state which sits below life in all of its fullness. Much as we try and separate it, hard work affects us, making us permanently tired, docile and unimaginative, fit only to spend the rest of our time in a numb, recuperative state that doesn’t deserve the name of life either: going on package holidays, watching mindless TV, and waiting to spending our hard-won pensions doing more of the same.
The urge to compete and win, to generate profit, to wield capital, to exploit, dominate and control: this is why work must, apparently, be hard. Competition is a natural instinct which has driven huge advances in knowledge, but I doubt it has lessened the misery of the human race as a whole. Hard work sounds unpleasant to me. Should we aim to spend the majority of our waking hours doing something unpleasant? What about fulfilling work, or good work, or just enough work so as to leave enough time for the other facets of our lives? We are more than selfish and rapacious primates; we are the only species to have developed the faculty of wonder, the ability to appreciate beauty, the facility for creativity and imagination, and, most revolutionary of all, the capacity to love. In love, there is no profit margin. You get back what you give.
Talents are often called gifts, but they are gifts to be given, not received. Le Tissier gave his and received fulfilment in equal measure; he did not seek to profit. As an amateur, a lover of the game, he understood that love obeys a cosmic equation. Like Wayne Rooney, we risk becoming victims of our own hard work. Sometimes we should stop running about, wander off from the centre circle and take some pot shots from 35 yards. We should aim to become lovers of the game.