The Space Between

Footballers. They're people as well, you know. Welcome to IBWM Miriti Murungi.

Shortly after a recent interview I did with Michael Zimbalist, co-director of The Two Escobars, I began to rethink soccer. More specifically, I began to rethink soccer players.

For those of you still unfamiliar with The Two Escobars, it’s a documentary that burrows into the intersection of narco-trafficking and the precipitous rise, and subsequent fall of Colombian soccer in the 1980s and 90s. It’s smashing stuff, really.

However, while generally interesting, for me, the documentary also conjured up thoughts about a space that we rarely venture into, namely, the lives and coinciding pressures on players beyond the playing field and media spotlight.

Quite frankly, no one seems to care much about this space. If you make obscene amounts of money, why should we care about your home sickness or the fact that your home nation is going through a civil war and how that may affect you, especially when we have Chelsea in two days?

Every year, globalization’s foothold in our local economies gets stronger. Yet our conversations, in many ways, stay provincial. In the English Premier League, players from around the globe uproot to ply their trade in one of the more lucrative leagues in the world. But as these players bring their foreign lives to England, all we seem to consider is how quickly they’ll adapt to play on the field, ignoring the other burdens that can accompany the uprooting process.

And it’s not just England, the same thing happens in leagues around the world that draw players from abroad. All this got me thinking back to 1994.

Back during the 1994 World Cup in the United States, I was acutely aware of narco-trafficking in Colombia. I was familiar with several of Colombia’s players, which I can prove with dated t-shirts and jerseys. And as an obsessed soccer player and supporter in the States at the time, I was also keenly aware of all of the U.S. national team players, already having watched them live on multiple occasions.

But on June 22, 1994, I was completely unaware of the life-threatening pressures facing the Colombian team as they emerged from the tunnel at the Rose Bowl to face the United States in their second Group A match. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the magnitude of what happened during those 90 minutes. The pressures that the Colombian players faced went well beyond carrying the clichéd hopes of a nation. Retelling this story to an audience that might have been unfamiliar with its nuances is where The Two Escobars succeeds.

As a soccer film, The Two Escobars, in part, recounts the U.S. v. Colombia match through the words of Colombian players, among others. The experience of revisiting a familiar time from a different vantage point enabled me to reassess what it really means to be playing with the weight of [fill in the noun] on your shoulders.

The U.S. players played with the very real weight of representing a sport in a country that didn’t even have a major professional league. Hosting the world’s most popular sporting event for the first time, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a group of 22 men to draw attention to a sport that was commercially invisible in the States. As a U.S. fan, this wasn’t just a story; it was a story of epic proportions.

But with a bit more perspective, I now recognize an even bigger, more significant narrative, one that transcends soccer, one that may have altered how I viewed a World Cup match that took place 16 years ago. Had I known that the opposing team had just received death threats at their hotel, threats that resulted in Colombia coach Francisco Maturana changing his team sheet, threats that fundamentally changed lives forever, I may have cared, not more or less, but differently.

But at the time, I didn’t know about the back drop of murdered and kidnapped family members. I didn’t know that maybe I should have interpreted Andrés Escobar’s hands on his face after conceding an own goal as a realization of the greater impact of his mistake, rather than just a player being deeply disappointed at conceding in a huge match. I didn't know about the unconscionable amount of pressure that must have been weighing on the Colombian players’ minds. I imagine that these pressures were largely invisible to most casual spectators at the time.

This brings me back to that space that we rarely venture into. Surely, in such a public, high profile sport, analysis and criticism are part of the package. But our willingness to criticize (and I’m talking about harsh criticism, not playful banter) without knowledge of or interest in back stories shouldn’t go unchecked simply because players get big paychecks. Although the mainstream media doesn’t help with their regurgitations of the mundane, regularly ignoring stories that may elevate the players we follow to more than just cogs in an uninteresting narrative, as humans, our personal experiences should allow us to recognize that players are more than just numbers on the back of a shirt.

At 23, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue was the provider for three generations of his family back in a war torn Ivory Coast. He once said, “I've got a big family, like Kolo [Toure], and everyone counts on me. I want to do my best for them and I send money to my parents, to my grandparents and, of course, money for the children in the family. I've also tried to help them out by finding houses and jobs for them.” Understanding such things may not make you begin loving a player you once abhorred, or start excusing theatric dives, but it might make you think twice before booing a player off the pitch for a series of misplaced passes.

In the era of decreasing margins of error in top flight sport, we shouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that players should still have a margin of error for being human and dealing with life pressures and demands that go beyond the sporting sphere. Whether it’s facing narco-trafficking in Colombia, a civil war in the Ivory Coast, or more personal tragedies or pressures, we should all periodically take the time to remember that players are people too.

You can follow Miriti on Twitter @NutmegRadio.