I’ve spent a lot of time staring at pretty footballers. I do not make this statement lightly; it is a fact that almost anyone discovers about me rather quickly. For many years now, getting to know me means listening to me drone on and on about football, the latest competition, my team, and ultimately, my football boyfriends.
And I know I am not alone in this diversion. Many of us who are active on #SoccerTwitter spend countless entertaining hours indulging in our admiration of a particular player. We send each other various half-naked footballers’ photos or videos in great times of need and distress or just because we discovered a better view of Sergio Ramos’ new tattoo or a gif we’ve never seen of Thorgan Hazard smiling during a press conference.
While indulging in the joy of having a football boyfriend may seem similar to teenage crushes on a lead singer (which, in itself, is also not a bad thing) once you scratch the surface you’ll realize there is a little more to it. We do crave more than a pretty face. Oh, we will continue to savor the latest shirtless photos of magnificent men from training, but there is a special quality, a certain trait, a sometimes unidentifiable X-factor that makes us truly love a player. There’s something more that drives us to rewatch endless clips of his skills or hang his poster on our walls.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my teenage bedroom walls hosted an ever-changing variety of posters and pages ripped from magazines, pinned up and torn down according to my latest whim. All represented whatever music was (to my father’s horror) currently blasting from my speakers. I’ll even admit that some pictures were bigger, or more numerous, or more prominent than others based on how comparatively cute said singer/band member was in relation to the others. Neither talent nor popularity was really a factor in my determination of their worthiness on my walls; if he was attractive, or alternatively if she was sexy & strong & scary, then up they went. A few years ago I visited my mother’s house and ran my hands over the million little pin holes she never bothered to fill and marveled how little I’ve changed and yet, how far I have come.
Many (many) years later, I am equally unashamed to admit that a framed collage of Francesco Totti pictures hangs right next to the sink, so while I wash dishes I can contemplate the beauty that is Il Capitano. While I am no longer simply pinning pages from a magazine straight to the wall, I still appreciate a pretty face. So I indulge in today’s modern equivalent: I am not above texting links to a YouTube video of a player ripping his shirt off or posting pictures of a team dripping in celebration champagne on a friend’s Facebook wall.
It would be incredibly easy to scoff or brush it off as a persisting ‘teenage girl thing’ that society in general loves to mock and discount, claiming that it’s just us women being juvenile and superficial and “objectifying men”. Our obsessions are not as shallow as that; we’d never fawn over an extremely handsome player if he also happened to be terrible on the pitch. And despite efforts to paint it as a ‘girly thing’ as soon as you bring the subject up in mixed company you quickly understand how universal this feeling is, how both men and women are easily seduced by the glamor of an attractive face.
Take, for instance, my first true football crush, the magnificent Paolo Maldini. He is the ultimate example of a pretty face in football; so handsome and perfect that during his prime at AC Milan many Italian fashion designers confessed they’d like to have him as a professional model and regularly sought him out to be the face of their latest campaigns. Maldini had classical Italian good looks: perfect bone structure, razor-sharp cheekbones, startling bright eyes, and great hair.
But while those features definitely caught my attention, they are not what made me love him. To watch Maldini play was to be mesmerized by his grace and serenity on the ball. Maldini never seemed to hurry; strikers never seemed to worry him. The ease and effortless way he tackled and defended were unlike anything I’d really ever seen; he radiated elegance and calmness and never seemed to wilt under pressure.
My best friend was in love with one of Maldini’s fiercest rivals on the pitch (and in true gentlemanly fashion, one of his closest friends off the pitch) Christian Vieri. Bobo, to me, seemed just a big brute, so I was amazed she could love him above all others. “He was super aggressive about scoring a goal, super skilled when it mattered, and super strong – a behemoth of a man who powered through the pitch to get the ball into the net no matter what,” she told me.
I’ve heard this often from those who love a striker, especially the ones who are bigger and more aggressive than most. A Zlatan Ibrahimović, Diego Costa, a Mario Balotelli. These days, we don’t often glorify players for their strength and force, but once you get fans talking about these players, they’ll praise how they “fight for every ball” or “would do anything to score”. Their ability to overcome the odds and score under pressure makes many of us fall for strikers.
One fan described his love for Carlos Tevez by simply stating: “He could score goals out of nothing on his own.” Another said Didier Drogba “would sometimes be a bit dramatic but, in the end, he would always win me back with a crucial goal”. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Balo’s smile is incredible or you could cut yourself on Drogba’s cheekbones.
My second football crush fell into this category as well. At the time, the majority of my love was focused on Italian players, but after watching just one Celtic game I became enamored with Henrik Larsson. Maybe it was the dreads, maybe it was the cheeky tongue-out goal celebration, or maybe it was the way he sometimes scored what looked like impossible goals. I was enthralled.
But I knew he was special the day his jaw got broken during a match. Even as he was led away, bloody and obviously in pain, he still managed to wave at the fans who sang his name. He generated such loyalty and love from Celtic fans that just a year ago, in a dark bar in the East Village of New York City, I ended up in a twenty minute conversation with a slightly inebriated older Scottish man who rhapsodized on Larsson and what he still meant to the club and the city of Glasgow.
The strikers, like a flashy lead singer, may get the adulation but playmakers are the lead guitarists who we all worship. For awhile, I was in awe of all midfield playermakers or trequartistas. Watching someone like Xavi or Alonso pull the strings from the midfield is almost a religious experience for many; names like Maradona, Ronaldinho, and Zidane are still spoken in reverent tones and hushed voices. Those players, to me, are the true rockstars of the footballing world. However, most of those players would never make a “Most Fancied” or “Top Ten Hottest’ list. They’re not who we choose as a football boyfriend. While a perfectly weighted pass may make your heart flutter it wasn’t until it was being mastered by someone with the perfect Roman nose and gladiator-like sculptured body of Totti that I fell in love again.
It would be very difficult to deny that most modern footballers are extremely easy on the eye. No wonder so many of us can only gaze in awe and wonder at how they achieve that particular Greek god-like physique. Yes, they are paid to be in their best condition, in order to perform at the top of their abilities but we’ll certainly not snub our noses at the fact that it also lends itself to some awfully enjoyable Instagram accounts, especially those of messieurs Marchisio & Bartra who have perfected the art of the social media game.
When you discuss football boyfriends with any mixed group you’ll notice right away this topic can’t just be termed a “girly thing”. Years ago, when football on American television and radio airwaves for English-speakers was fairly rare and new and women in any sports media format was an anomaly, I co-hosted a radio show and podcast with two other women. Our boss wasn’t the most progressive of men (to put it politely) and tried to steer us in a direction of playing up certain sexist stereotypes.
We resisted, but we didn’t shy away from spending quality time on the show discussing how handsome certain players were or dissing their style. We knew that if we were interested in these topics there must be other women who would appreciate us giving them a safe space, without judgment, to join the conversation.
We quickly discovered that the men in our audience suddenly felt free to add their strongly-held opinions in these matters as well. All our fans, both men and women, were just as enthusiastic and excited to debate these same topics; we were actually surprised that many of the men were almost relieved to get “permission” to rant and rave about David Beckham’s hair as loudly as they did over his freekicks. Our weekly segment, ‘MLS Hottie of the Week’, a forerunner to the Soccer Gods amazing ‘Man Crush Monday’ takes (R.I.P. Soccer Gods), received just as much positive feedback and lively discussion as our analysis of the last weekend’s games. It was obvious that everyone, no matter what gender, had opinions on both the 4-4-2 formation AND Fernando Torres’ latest hair disaster.
Luckily, as complex human beings, we can appreciate players on many different levels. But most of us have also realized that those worthy of being our football boyfriends must dazzle us with more than just their sparkling smiles; we want to see something special, an intangible quality in them that proves them deserving of our devotion. The obvious example is Drogba; ask any Côte d’Ivoire fan about Didier and prepare for passionate praise of all his actions and deeds for his country. To some, he’s simply a hero; for others, those off-the-pitch qualities set him up nicely to be a commendable football boyfriend choice.
But we don’t require all our boyfriends to both save their country and have superior muscle tone; often the character of the man makes him even more attractive. One Patrice Evra fan describes him thus: “Brilliant, professional, thoughtful, outspoken, funny, immersed himself in United culture, and his generation’s best left back”. Or as a fan of Pep Guardiola says, “He is the stern, dominant, passionate man completely devoted to his vision and perfecting it. He makes mistakes & takes ownership of them. He isn’t afraid of growth, education, learning new things and seeing how he can incorporate them. That’s big.”
We see footballers’ passion and devotion as reflections of our own feelings toward both them and our teams. For me, those qualities make Totti the ideal football boyfriend, as he exhibits them each time he’s on the pitch, each time he talks about Roma. It makes him not just a joy to look at but a joy to watch.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with admiring a player after seeing him all sweaty and half-naked exchanging jerseys with an opponent at the end of a match. You can appreciate a pretty face. You can elevate heroes whose silky skills enchant you. But unless they happen to be both embodied in the same player – as they are in Paul Pogba or Olivier Giroud or Francesco Totti – then we don’t seem to love them with the intensity that we do our true football boyfriends.
These players, this sport, consumes us. And that means our love is not easily given. We admit that while there are multitudes of great players in the world, usually the one ones who make us euphoric are the ones that are also the most beautiful. That doesn’t make us superficial; we require more. If they don’t have talent, if they don’t score great goals or keep the ball out of the net or create chances, we wouldn’t look twice. We certainly would not afford them precious space – whether on our bedroom walls or the digital ones we’ve now created – even if they are breathtakingly handsome.
To love a football boyfriend, to be able to cherish and applaud him, requires him to be an exception. The love we give in return for those exceptional traits is just as remarkable. And you can’t tell us that this love we feel and indulge isn’t real; my adoration for Totti has now outlasted most of my “real” relationships. I don’t see myself taking down his collage any time soon.