In the darker moments, I sometimes wonder if football is simply a satanic mechanism to trap innocent souls in endless, tedious conversations from which there will never be any escape. For what else can it be but maleficent distraction, this strange impulse we have to argue bloodily and bitterly for and against propositions we can never hope to prove or dis-.
Goalline decisions, for, instance, such as Robinho's goal/not-goal for Milan against Catania. I don't know. Nor do you. Nor did television, and television knows everything. Can't ask the players; footballers, of course, are inveterate liars, perfectly happy to claim throw-ins when the ball cannoned off their own nose. But we should definitely have really strong and loud opinions on the matter.
[For those of you wondering, the first few paragraphs of a piece like this are where a proper (or aspiring proper) journalist would set the scene with an on-the-face-of-it minor-yet-subtly telling anecdote. You know the sort of thing: "Soandso Tumptytum was just seven years old, when he accidentally split the atom with a fortune cookie ... ". As I'm not a proper (or aspiring proper) journalist, I don't have to, which is why I can blather on indulgently about Satan and so forth. Blame the internet.]
A similar question, but even more nebulous and strange, is the exercise in soul-scrying that is "did he mean it?". It's a question as unanswerable as it is pointless, and the latest subject/victim of this strange attempt to unravel the firmly ravelled is Antonio Valencia, whose savage dismissal of the ball into Paul Robinson's net on Monday night set Manchester United on their way to a two-goal win, a five-point gap, and, according to one bookmaker with a craving for publicity, which is why they won't be getting a link here, the title. But did he mean it?
No! Who would shoot from there?
Yes! Look at his body shape!
No! No way he could have known Robinson would be so tardy!
Yes! Why would he hit a cross so hard?
And so on and so forth. It doesn't matter on any practical level, of course, nor does it really matter on a conceptual level. Too much emphasis is placed on attempting to divine the intentions behind the remarkable, a state of affairs akin to those television programs where a masked dream-despoiler carefully fillets the mystery from stage magic. Something amazing happened! Let's hack it to pieces as quickly as possible! I like my magic magical and myself amazed, thanks all the same.
Besides, if any player deserves as much credit as can reasonably be given, it's Valencia, who has been arguably the outstanding attacking player of the sharp end of the season, and has been central to the ten-point swing that has seen red replace duck-egg blue at the top of the Premier League. Well, not central, I suppose, at least not literally. But he's made the periphery of the pitch matter.
Profoundly, almost aggressively one-footed, Valencia feels like a throwback to a simpler time, before wingers -- the most fundamentally and straightforwardly thrilling of all football positions -- went and got themselves inverted, converted, perverted, introverted, and generally subverted into the rest of the untidy mess. You get the feeling that if Ferguson asked him to switch to the opposite flank, his body would undergo some kind of allergic reaction to the very idea, and by the time kick-off arrived he'd find himself only able to use his left.
Some Manchester United fans, perhaps ever-so-slightly losing the run of themselves, have been comparing him to Garrincha; others have been campaigning for him to be awarded the currently vacant no. 7 shirt. (No. He doesn't count.) Certainly, when Valencia's at his best he is the league's foremost purveyor of twisted blood (ahem), a fact made all the stranger by that one-footedness, which logic insists should limit him. But where some wingers rely on flamboyant trickery, and others on the equation of pace + space + a good head-start, Valencia has an intuitive understanding of the tiny shifts of balance, momentum and touch that make the difference between a defender having you covered, and having omelettey features. Ally that to decent delivery, surprising strength, and what looks a bit like the first flowerings of an eye for goal, and logic can skulk off to the dark corners where it belongs.
Yet it's not just his football that is admirable; or rather, it's his focus on just the football that is. He doesn't spend most of his time on the pitch clutching his shin, stricken with one of those mystery injuries that can only be healed by the immediate award of a free-kick. He doesn't shill crisps, or spit-roast hookers, or stumble out of sticky-floored nightclubs, hopped to the high heavens on his own self-regard. And while most footballers view goal celebrations as an excuse to remind all those watching just how brilliant they think they are -- looking at you, Ashley Young -- Valencia doesn't really go in for that much either. One Guardian writer memorably described him looking, just after having scored, as though somebody had "burst a balloon filled with piss in his face". This reticence, apparently born from shyness, makes the rare smiles all the more special, and made Monday night's point-and-shout-and-run-about-a-bit look positively Tardelli-esque. His tight-lipped, Gary Cooper-esque deportment is a welcome relief from all the histrionic squawking we are forced to endure.
For when it comes to idols, we live in an age of making-do. Our footballing heroes are, on the whole, shabby human beings in one manner or another. We are asked to worship a glistering parade of chumps, cheats, and charlatans, the children of a game that melted down the moral compass long ago. And while Valencia's inscrutability brings its own problems -- projection all too often stumbles into wish-fulfilment -- it at least allows us to tell ourselves that here is a man who just might not be a sorry excuse for himself. And it doesn't really matter whether he means to or not. Sometimes, the possibility is enough.