We have been conditioned to think of football players as Other. This conditioning has been effected, partly, by the players themselves; in an incredible piece for the New York Times, David Foster Wallace described professional, competitive sport as "a prime venue for the expression of human beauty". He goes on to explain:
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
DFW’s writing about tennis (specifically, Roger Federer), but his general point is equally appropriate to soccer (which is, after all, the beautiful game). His idea is that we all have crappy and annoying bodies, he posits a continual "schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities". Elite sportspeople – Federer, Lionel Messi, Tiger – reconcile us to our inadequacy be recasting the general schism as traversable*. This phenomenon creates a secondary notion that footballers’ bodies are fundamentally different from ours; that they are physically Other.
This physical otherness, which is an unavoidable consequence of eliteness (and thus desirable – how early would you wake up to watch me and my mates play a game of eleven aside, even if we were doing at the Emirates?), partly creates, and is partly compounded by, a fawning, sensationalist and exploitative media. Media outlets -- look at any Sky Sports or ESPN
promotional material for upcoming matches ad campaign for the latest superhero franchise -- play off footballers’ Otherness and, in so doing, exaggerate it yet further.
The TV channels whose billions, filtered through leagues and clubs, turn into footballers’ millions, have a vested interest in those players. Their physical Otherness allows them to be turned into things and this causes a mental-emotional disconnect which renders footballers fundamentally different from us.
This dual Othering explains, first, why a few morons can turn up at fourth division Italian club Pro Patria (which is Latin for "for country" and suggestive of an unpleasant nationalism) for a mid-season friendly and racially abuse AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng. Racism is again prevalent in football, I think, because of the way we have been conditioned. Of course, racism still requires a Molotov of ignorance and stupidity, but it is much easier to abuse a man whose deep difference to you has been obviously and repeatedly proved.
The Othering also explains why Boateng’s reaction – he walked off, his teammates followed and the game was cancelled – is so unusual. He reacted, essentially, as any of us would. His reaction is not the "noble" and "vital response" that Amy Lawrence argues football has needed; it is just a normal, human reaction – he even booted the ball at his abusers. Boateng was applauded by other fans, and he joined in their applause thereby creating a symbolic unification between player and fans. This is what football needs.
This isn’t an impassioned plea for footballers as role models, rather an appeal for footballers to act as people. By acting impulsively, Boateng did exactly that and, regardless of issues of setting and concerns over how UEFA would react if he walked out of the Nou Camp, that is why his walk-off is valuable. If Leo Messi's Youtube hits thrust his super-humanity in our faces, and are therefore awesome, Boateng's latest Youtube hit reminds us of his humanity, and is therefore an important counterpoint. In fact, if Boateng's video reminds us of footballers' humanity, it should make Messi's even more special: it shows us the beauty of which we are capable.