Minting a legacy — tarnishing it, flogging a dead horse, making a quick buck, becoming a self-aggrandising self-parody — is a lot easier than creating one. Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United and possibly one of the greatest football managers ever, retired from the position in 2013, and in the period since, he’s already published an autobiography, a revised version of it, and now a new book called Leading, his seventh overall. In a word, he’s “dishing”. On his replacement, David Moyes, not being first-choice. On making sure he’s the highest-paid employee at the club. On his management secrets. On Cristiano Ronaldo’s infinite vanity. On whatever little mystery remains about his 25-plus year tenure at the club.
On the one hand, it’s thrilling to get an unfiltered behind-the-scenes account of the functioning of one of the biggest football clubs in the world. But then comes the realisation about the intent. Isn’t it a little sad to see a great sporting figure, a genius who achieved unprecedented success as a manager for over three decades, often seemingly through sheer force of will, approaching a platinum jubilee and spending his time making controversial statements — he managed only four “world class” players, he’s just said; a bald-faced lie — on book tours and interviews and trying to sell as many copies as he can? It’s not like he needs the money; Ferguson is a millionaire several hundred times over.
The reason, to me at least, is that he just can’t let go. That he’s an obsessive who retired for family reasons, and now misses the joys of being involved with the sport that’s been the most crucial element of his existence, and while he realises that it was time to retire, he still wants a piece of the action in any way he can — that he wants to remain in the limelight for as long as his body will allow. It’s a recurring theme among the greatest of all sportsmen — the inability to walk away gracefully. But isn’t that in itself synonymous with the prior greatness too?
It’s a result of the very trait that makes these sportsmen great to begin with: Obsession. It’s not just the skill; the fanatical devotion — the same devotion that turns them into self-parodies — to the joy of the craft is what instills the determination to succeed.
Pete Sampras, one of tennis’s all time greats, had the chance to relinquish his throne at the very top in the early 2000s. He had just won his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title in 2000, his 13th overall. But he stuck around, slowly losing the zip that made him great — the will to fight remained, but the body gave way. There were calls for his retirement all around. For two years he toiled, before winning the US Open in 2002 against the odds; he didn’t actively compete after that, but he announced his retirement only a year later. Many years ago, I remember reading an article about how, sad as Sampras’s semi-delusional denial of his waning skills may have been, it was also an intrinsic part of his success.
Michael Schumacher retired from Formula One racing in 2006, only to return in 2010, a shadow of the racer he once was, before finally calling it a day in 2012. Paul Scholes retired from football in 2011; within a year he was back spraying passes in the centre of the pitch for Manchester United, putting in a memorable display in the derby against Manchester City in an FA Cup game on his comeback. Ferguson himself initially announced plans to retire at the end of the 2001-2002 season. He went on for another 12 years. In India, the stage was set for Sachin Tendulkar to walk off into the sunset after India won the World Cup in 2011, on a poetic 99 career centuries, but he chose to stay on for another couple of years, still a great player, but nowhere close to what he had been capable of in the past.
This obvious inability to let go seems to imply a pointed lack of self-awareness. The downfall of a once-great sportsperson can be a tragic sight to witness (the decline of the original Ronaldo, Il Fenomeno, from lethal, lightning quick finisher to tubby partyboy imposter, remains one of football’s most heartbreaking stories). It doesn’t necessarily mean turning overnight from deadly to disastrous; the deterioration is gradual, where certain instinctive qualities slide with time, even as the player tries desperately to cling to past glories. The loss in form is only relative to the original bounty of skill in possession of said player. And there’re counter examples too: the agelessness of Argentina’s Javier Zanetti; or Leander Paes still winning Grand Slams at the age of 42 — 12 years ago, he even battled a life-threatening parasitic brain infection, only to come back stronger.
But from a larger, more romantic perspective, talent often drops off but the attitude and the drive to succeed doesn’t. And it leads to sh*tty books and sh*ttier last hurrahs that taint (or replace) golden memories. It’s why (King) Eric Cantona is so revered — he retired from football aged 31 after a disciplinary hearing where he was banned for a month; Cantona responded by calling all the panel members idiots to their faces, one by one. The ban was duly increased to two months, and so he announced his retirement soon after. Duncan Edwards is considered by many to be the greatest footballer to have played the game; he died tragically in the Munich air disaster at the age of 21.
But the latter day deterioration I speak of is actually a result of the very trait that makes these sportsmen great to begin with: Obsession. It’s not just the skill; the fanatical devotion — the same devotion that turns them into self-parodies once the legs have gone — to the joy of the craft is what instills the determination to succeed against all odds. Roy Keane’s hot-headed volatility is now restricted to incendiary statements made as a football pundit, but it also propelled him to almost single-handedly drag Manchester United to victory with two goals in the Champions League semi final against Juventus in ’99, despite knowing he’d be suspended for the final.
When you hear of players missing the births of their children, funerals of their parents, life-changing moments of all kinds, for a match, and then scoring a century or a hat-trick in that very game, it doesn’t make them terrible people (or maybe it does). But really, it’s that single-minded fixation to succeed that defines them. That, more than talent, seems to set apart the merely gifted from the truly great.