Big, slow and talentless? You too could be a football star

I switched on Eurosport the other day, hoping for sport of a footballing nature, anywhere on the globe, and saw a sight I have never seen before in a lifetime of seeing sights. Someone was playing in shades, well, playing while wearing some sort of sun specs. Quite remarkable, as David Coleman would have said, is probably still saying, somewhere or other.

It wasn't just any old footballer but a top player, Edgar Davids of Juventus, a world star whom Man Utd supposedly failed to sign. He was playing for Holland against Belgium, neither of whom has to go through all this qualifying nonsense for Euro 2000 as they are there as joint hosts. But it was a proper game, nonetheless, very exciting, very competitive, and Davids scored a brilliant goal, weaving his way through the defence as if he had X-ray vision or second sight.

We then got a close-up afterwards and I could see that he was wearing rather trendy wraparound plastic shades, with a blue tint, but a bit heavier than the norm. What a poseur, I thought, copying those American sprinters, who wear shades as fashion accessories, to look superior, intimidating or just cool.

We've had every permutation of hairstyles in football, including perms - remember Kevin's and Bryan Robson's? I bet their children burst out laughing when they see those old pics. We've also had a variety of body jewellery, such as ear-rings and necklaces. As Edgar Davids is so well regarded, shades are now bound to be the next thing for footballers with attitude. They are such copycats. What next? Strikers playing in baseball caps, worn back to front , goalkeepers in kilts with sporrans, wingers in sarongs as worn by Becks?

That's what I was thinking, when there was an even closer close-up of Davids. This time I could see his shades were more like goggles, a bit heavy to be fashion items. Then I thought, oh my God, I've been horrible to him, accusing him of posing when they're obviously for some medical condition. I hope he didn't hear me.

I presumed they must be in place of contact lenses, which many players use, and often lose, holding up the game as they ratch around in the grass for them or get new ones sent on. Is it Darren Anderton who wears them, or am I thinking of Chris Waddle? I have an image of a winger having trouble with his contact lens.

Later on I found out that Davids suffers from glaucoma, a pretty serious condition, and this is part of his treatment, so no more silly remarks, please. But that led me on to thinking about why football is so popular right around the world, among all sorts and conditions of people. And the reason is that all sorts and conditions of people play it.

Anyone can join in, have a go, regardless. You need very little equipment, but most of all, you don't have to fit a certain physical type, as in many other human activities. Sprinters, for example, all look the same, as do people running the 1,500 metres. With football, people with totally different body weights, heights, widths, ages and talents can still take part.

And we're not just talking about Sunday morning park football. Would anyone, for example, looking at Gazza in the buff, think wow, there goes a superb physical specimen, he must be a soccer star? No chance. Or gaze at, say, Pat Nevin and think, what a hunk. Of course not. Michael Owen is so titchy it's hard to think what other game he could have done as well at. As for Zola, he wouldn't get a game with anyone, at anything. You'd send him back, no ends of the litter today, please, chuck him out if you got him in a bag of new potatoes as being too small to eat. Or what about Niall Quinn? So tall and gawky, his mum must have thought no, we won't buy him some football boots, what's the point, we'll just use him as a clothes pole.

In any line-up of football teams, at Premier level or international level, I always love it when the camera goes down the line, seeing the vastly different heights, which usually catch the cameraman out, and he has to juggle it. I study all the different physiques, the different phizogs, the different expressions. I always think, my God, who would ever have chosen that lot to be star footballers, if it had been solely dependent on choosing ones who supposedly looked like star footballers?

It's not even a matter of having skill. That comes in all forms as well. You have no ball control, you're very slow but big, then no problem, you can be goalie. You are small, but with few skills, no problem either, we'll get you fit and teach you how to kick people and you could be full-back for Arsenal for, oh, the next decade.

Which brings us to actual disabilities, as opposed to lack of natural talents or physical gifts. Davids is now showing us that you can still be at the top while suffering from a worrying eye complaint. Gary Mabbutt showed us how to play while suffering from diabetes. Paul Scholes has asthma. So has Matt Jansen.

I started watching Scholes carefully, once I learnt that, as I had awful asthma most of my early life. He has his inhaler in the dressing-room and usually takes a puff before a match. You can see him not talking when he comes out, because you can't or shouldn't talk after the Ventolin, or whatever it is he uses, if you want it to get deep into the lungs. People with asthma, particularly young people, are embarrassed, want to pretend they don't have it. I think this explains why Scholes is one of the most silent, retiring players in the Man Utd dressing-room. At England level, Keegan says he can't get a word out of him, either. Poor lad.

So hurrah for Edgar Davids, showing not just all footballers but all of us the way to overcome the handicaps that either nature or other folk place upon us. Amen.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities