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What Our Stars Say About Us

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There are almost eight years between the photographs, but they seem to come not so much from different eras as from different worlds.

The first is from the summer of 1990. Paul Gascoigne is beaming against a bright blue sky. He, plus the rest of the England team that had reached the semifinals of the World Cup, has just touched down to a heroes’ welcome. Gascoigne, the breakout star of the tournament, has decided to greet his public wearing a pair of plastic novelty breasts.

The second image is from the summer of 1998, before a World Cup this time, rather than after one. David Beckham holds hands with his fiancee, the singer Victoria Adams, on a night out. Neither looks especially happy with the fact that a throng of photographers has chosen to accompany them for the evening. Over a pair of combat trousers, Beckham is wearing a sarong.

ImageDavid Beckham's comfort zone was always much bigger than the soccer field.
David Beckham’s comfort zone was always much bigger than the soccer field.Credit…Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Only a handful of soccer players ever attain what might be best described as mainstream fame. Anyone who follows the game even at a casual remove would know the name of Kevin De Bruyne, of course: He is, after all, one of the most gifted players of this generation, probably the outstanding star of the most popular league in the world.

For all his talent, though, for all his medals and other achievements, De Bruyne remains famous only in a soccer sense. That is no mean feat, of course: Hundreds of millions of people across the globe will know his strengths and weaknesses, his highs and his lows. They will have fiercely held opinions on his most recent performances for Manchester City.

But countless more will not. It is not a perfect parallel, but it is perhaps the difference between Broadway fame and Hollywood fame. Modern soccer is, as the journalist David Goldblatt has written, perhaps the most pervasive cultural phenomenon of all time, but even that comes with a limited power, a niche appeal. The vast majority of the global population does not follow it, not even a little, and so the name Kevin De Bruyne will mean little, or nothing, to them.

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Kevin De Bruyne is unquestionably a star. An icon? That’s different.Credit…Pool photo by Clive Brunskill

That is true of all but a select few. Often, the exceptions make the leap through virtue of sheer ability. Ballet is hardly an international passion, but for a while, Rudolf Nureyev was one of the most famous people on the planet. It is by the same osmosis that Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo found a fame that extends beyond the sporting silo in which it was forged. (For the record, in terms of sheer numbers, Ronaldo is surely substantially more famous than Nureyev ever was, but then Nureyev didn’t have Instagram.)

Others, though, attain that fame not just through their sporting prowess but through their cultural relevance. Beckham is, perhaps, the clearest example. He was, of course, an outstanding player — far better than he was given credit for at the time — but it took something more for him to become as much a cultural figure as a soccer one.

Beckham would have had an abundance of crossover appeal at any time, of course — the looks, the fashion, the Spice Girl romance — but the level of fame he achieved can be attributed to the precise time he emerged, too.

It was with the Beckham wedding that the BBC opened a four-part documentary series last month on the nature of 21st century celebrity. The Beckhams did not herald the dawn of the celebrity era, of course — their engagement was announced a year after the death of Princess Diana — but they did represent an apogee, an acceleration of it: Crowds of fans lined the streets on their wedding day, and a glossy magazine paid a frankly unthinkable — in the social media age — 1 million pounds for exclusive pictures of the ceremony.

We knew, at the time, that this was the era of Cool Britannia and Britpop and Danny Boyle. What we did not know, perhaps, was that it would soon be the era of Heat magazine, Britain’s equivalent to Us Weekly, and Paris and Nicole and Perez Hilton and “Big Brother.” Beckham cut through because he was not only a player, but because he also encapsulated a celebrity culture that was just starting to flower.

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Paul Gascoigne’s tears endeared him to fans watching the 1990 World Cup.Credit…Roberto Pfeil/Associated Press

Gascoigne, eight years earlier, had done the same, albeit in a very different culture. He is often credited with softening soccer’s image in Britain, his tears on the field during England’s defeat in the 1990 World Cup semifinals washing away the stains of hooliganism and Heysel and The Sunday Times’s damning verdict that soccer was “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people.” After Gascoigne came “Fever Pitch” and Pete Davies and the Premier League, the agents of soccer’s gentrification.

There is some truth in that, but Gascoigne was also very much a figure of his age, too. The drinking and the pranks, the novelty songs and the novelty breasts were all the accouterments of what would eventually be called “lad culture,” the unreconstructed, beery era of the early 1990s that bequeathed the world a suite of soft-core men’s magazines, a range of sugary alcopops and, to some extent, Oasis.

It is difficult to analyze with any certainty the mechanics of Gascoigne’s or Beckham’s fame. Did they rise beyond their sport because they reflected an emerging culture neither they nor we quite grasped? Were they figures of sufficient influence that they shaped the culture in their own image? Or were they understood through the lens of the dominant culture of the time, and we turned them into what we wanted them to be?

However it worked, both became emblems of their eras, soccer’s emissaries to the mainstream, individuals through which it is possible to parse the cultures that formed and distorted them. But they were not the first. George Best, regarded as the fifth Beatle, and Johan Cruyff, a symbol of the counterculture, had been through the same process in the 1960s and ’70s. (In England, at least, the 1980s are best understood through a cricketer, Ian Botham.)

It is striking, then, that the two players of the current generation most firmly set on that path are Marcus Rashford and Megan Rapinoe. Neither is the best player of this era — though Rapinoe is closer than Rashford — but both, at the start of 2021, have the sort of mainstream fame that few of their peers will ever muster.

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Like a handful of stars before her, Megan Rapinoe has the kind of fame that transcends soccer.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

And as with Beckham and Gascoigne, their fame offers a window into our culture, affirming not just that this is an era in which the traditional gatekeepers of fame have been replaced by something more direct — and, possibly, more egalitarian, thanks to social media — or that athlete activism is encouraged rather than merely tolerated.

The rise of first Rapinoe and then Rashford is a sign that fame now comes with responsibility, that we have moved beyond the Beckham phase of celebrity culture (pictures of famous people being famous) and the Perez Hilton phase (pictures of famous people sweating) and into an era in which fame is bestowed for standing for something, whether it is equal pay or equal rights or feeding hungry children. In the 2020s, fame and values are interlinked.

Just as with Beckham and Gascoigne, it is not possible to say for sure whether Rapinoe and Rashford created that era, or whether the era created them. Either way, though, their prominence says as much about us as it does about them. Their fame, to some extent, shows us who we are.

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Weston McKennie added another goal to his highlight reel on Wednesday.Credit…Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Weston McKennie was not, it is fair to say, particularly known for his goal scoring during his time with Schalke, but he has developed something of a taste for it with Juventus. He scored, spectacularly, at Camp Nou against Barcelona late in 2020, and his 2021 started with a celebration in another of European soccer’s great cathedrals, San Siro, on Wednesday night.

McKennie’s goal sealed a vital 3-1 win for Juventus against A.C. Milan, one that keeps Andrea Pirlo’s team in touching distance of Milan, and Inter, at the summit of Serie A, and preserves, for now, the dream of a 10th straight title.

Pirlo’s first few months as a coach have been — as is to be expected, really — a little mixed: His Juventus beat Barcelona and lost by 3-0 at home to Fiorentina in the space of a couple of weeks in December. There are moments when his vision of an ultramodern, swift, ruthless side comes into focus, and moments when that seems distant as a dream.

But what stood out most of all, on Wednesday, was how atypical the game felt, given both its stakes — an old rivalry, two title contenders, the last unbeaten team in any of Europe’s major leagues against a side that would have effectively surrendered its title with defeat — and its location.

It is strange, really, how powerful the idea of Italian soccer as inherently defensive has proved to be. Serie A has not been like that for some time, not for a decade, perhaps longer. Teams like Atalanta and Sassuolo are as attack-minded as anyone in Europe; Serie A games, on average, had more goals last season than the Premier League.

Wednesday at San Siro fit that new image of Italian soccer perfectly: a rapid-fire exchange of punches, a startling absence of caution, a breathless, faintly frenzied tempo. Even at two goals down, with the game as good as finished, Milan kept pouring forward. The stereotype has been outdated for a while. It may be time to dispense with it for good.

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The F.A. Cup is viewed by some more as a relic than as a prize.Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

Southampton’s game against Shrewsbury is already off. At the time of writing, Liverpool’s trip to Aston Villa looked sure to follow. Lowly Chorley will have its moment against the comparative might of Derby County in name only: Derby, missing its entire first team, will be forced to field a squad of teenage hopefuls.

The third round of the F.A. Cup — the point in soccer’s most venerable competition when the elite joins in — remains, even now, the most evocative date on English soccer’s calendar, a weekend of tradition and romance and occasional wonder that encapsulates so much of what England likes to believe is good about its game.

The luster of the competition has faded in the last two decades, of course. It is no longer just coaches of the Premier League’s superpowers who resent its intrusion — most teams from most leagues now field their reserves, saving their stars for more important battles ahead — but the power of what it represents has, if anything, grown, the last glimmer of egalitarianism in an increasingly stratified world.

But the F.A. Cup has long occupied a fragile place in soccer’s changing ecosystem. It is more than 20 years, now, since Manchester United was encouraged not to take part in the 2000 edition of the competition, traveling instead to Brazil for a forerunner of the Club World Cup, a move the English authorities themselves felt would be good diplomacy while the country was bidding for the actual men’s World Cup.

At the time, many felt that move proved the F.A. Cup no longer truly mattered; in the years that have passed, it has come to be seen as a watershed in the competition’s history. It certainly has never felt as if it mattered quite so much since then, though the forces behind that are far more complex than the absence of one team for one season.

It is easy, then, to see why the F.A. would not have wanted to cancel this year’s competition (quite apart from the value of its own television deals, and the lifeline F.A. Cup funds provide to smaller clubs). Skipping a year would have been confirmation that the tournament was some kind of optional afterthought.

And yet plowing on may prove no less damaging. This weekend’s matches will be played in empty stadiums as the second — or possibly third, it’s hard to say for sure — wave of the coronavirus pandemic bites. The teams that do play will be even weaker than normal, as coaches try to manage the fearsome workload placed on their players; the ones that do not may be given free passes into the fourth round, or have to catch up at a later date, turning the competition into chaos.

It is hard not to wonder if it might all just feel a little pointless, a tradition being maintained for its own sake in circumstances that are really not conducive to it. It is, equally, hard not to think that perhaps, in hindsight, this might be the point at which whatever remains of the tournament’s mystique evaporates for good.

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For Tom Davies, left, and Jack Grealish, one reader noticed, every day is leg day.Credit…Dave Thompson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I think I know where James Armstrong might fall on that question. “I think it is insane to be playing sports in a pandemic,” he wrote. “Is the risk of long-term Covid worth it for a football match? Or a basketball game?”

It is a valid question and an understandable view, though it’s not one I share. In Europe — I cannot speak for elsewhere in the world — there is no evidence that I’m aware of to suggest that players have contracted the virus because they are playing soccer. The rise in cases we have seen in recent weeks seems, almost entirely, to be related to mixing away from the field.

As a rule, the bubbles the leagues and their teams have instituted have held. And, speaking from the perspective of a country now in a third lockdown, it does not feel too naive or self-aggrandizing to suggest that sports’ playing on gives at least a portion of the population some link to normality and some source of distraction at a time when both are badly needed.

Carl Lennertz, meanwhile, is fixated on Tom Davies’s and Jack Grealish’s socks. “It’s so oddly unprofessional yet delightful to watch these two in their gym socks,” he wrote. “It’s like watching a rugby player come out in sandals or a pro golfer in flip flops. Why take the risk of exposing one’s shins that way? I’m sure they are in line with some sort of precise measurement, but it’s still not cool despite its individualistic look.”

I see your point, Carl, but I’m afraid I have to invoke the Rui Costa rule: If he did it, then it is not only OK, but it is the very height of cool.

Feedzy

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