Is it a man? Is it a boy? Is it a beast, a monster, something created out of a test tube? Are those luscious lips real, is that pout put on? The skin seems totally perfect, and wow, what a body: 6ft 5in, a fantasy figure – where did he get it from? And how can any human score goals in every game he plays?
Yup, that’s Erling Haaland, the wonder striker at Manchester City, the marvel of the season so far. So hard to take your eyes off him. He must be giving Premier League defenders panic attacks in the night.
He’s scored 23 goals in his first 15 games for City. Incredible.
We do know roughly where he gets his talent from – his father, Alfie, also played for City, as well as Leeds and Nottingham Forest, and his mother was a champion heptathlete, so the genes have helped.
It’s the perfection of his body, its size and strength, its movement and motivation, which is so unusual. Typically, a giant player is clumsy and slow on the park, and gets knocked over, while those of lesser statures easily outmanoeuvre him. But Erling is totally coordinated, a smooth machine. He can be human, missing goals, hardly getting a touch, yet still a prowling presence, liable to explode.
We have had geniuses on the football field before – Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Greaves, Johan Cruyff, Pelé, George Best, Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi – but mostly they have been of average size, sometimes small or weedy – a skinamalink, a bit like the rest of us, not really exceptional examples of the human race, until they get on the pitch.
Ronaldo, yes, he has a pretty perfect body for an athlete, and has worked hard to keep it in top condition, but he has nothing of the awesome size and strength of Haaland. Messi, by comparison, he’s nobbut a lad, a ten-stone weakling. Greaves, off the pitch, looked under-nourished, deprived. Best was very thin.
Haaland has a body straight out of the comic books. Roy of the Rovers walks among us.
He works so hard when he plays, comes back to defend at corners. He poaches most of his goals, from six yards, as Greaves did, but he can score from incredible angles, somehow contorting his body, ever so gracefully, reaching out his long limbs to bring the ball down.
His movement is constant, always on the hunt, anticipating where the ball is going. When he fails to hit the net, or the ball rebounds off the post, it does not seem to affect him. There is no exaggerated fury, no clutching his head, no beating the ground. He knows next time it will go in. His skills are natural, as is his temperament. Both are of the kind that can’t be taught, but would still have needed to be worked on.
We have had Big Lads before, of course, who played up front and scored loads of goals, such as Martin Chivers – but he was inconsistent, could be lazy, didn’t go back and help out, driving his managers mad. Haaland is so young, so eager, so optimistic and hard-working, willing to do his best – and so clearly enjoying himself.
Can he keep it up? Will age and injuries slow him down? He is only 22, so, God willing, let’s hope he gives us at least ten years of grace and wonder and magic.
Will he get spoiled, dissolute, lazy, self-indulgent, be led astray, or grow too cocky and confident, convinced he can do no wrong? Will he decide that it is all too easy, so why knock himself out, why bother to train? That has happened with young superstars in the past.
Perhaps the way he is playing now will turn out to be his peak. Could he be like Dele Alli, suddenly fading and stumbling, for no apparent reason? Will we all slowly realise that that was it, his best has gone, brief and wonderful though it was?
The opposition could work out ways to thwart him, nullify his threat, or knacker his ankles, which is what lumpen defenders used to do. Strikers do get more protection today, but still he is bound to get injuries and suffer a loss of form. It will inevitably happen. Even to a Norwegian god.
Am I getting carried away? Do I really want to have his babies? Actually, no thanks. Gorgeous Jack Grealish – now you’re talking. Ronaldo at a pinch. And Besty most of all. Oooh, matron.
Come to think of it, I don’t like pasty skin and pouting lips and yellow hair, and there is already a hint of flab around those jowls and thighs and tum.
But we can still admire Haaland’s superhuman skills and miraculous goals, and hope he will delight us for many years to come.
Nicholas Lezard returns next week. “Love in Old Age: A Year in the Wight House” by Hunter Davies is published by Head of Zeus
This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder