“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again,’’ intones the Disney narrator.
Not in London, but in football. A sport where our favourite animation characters are reborn with every exquisite through ball and feisty aerial duel; confusing offside trap or jaw-dropping hairdo. You wish to the stars, ‘’Can I live forever, witnessing all of football’s transformation for a thousand years to come?’’
Yes you can, only if you’re … Peter Pan.
But when I stopped daydreaming, I googled “football’s Peter Pan” and the results were… uninspiring.
From Mario Balotelli to Wayne Rooney, Marko Arnautović to Robbie Fowler, the world seems fixated on Peter Pan as a brat who never wants to grow up. Quite frankly, if you add just a tablespoon of Cristiano Ronaldo to that mix, you’ll have a delicious Neverland soup, made with all the right Lost Boys ingredients.
Ok! So let’s examine the true Peter Pan. I’ll call him tPP to make things clear.
tPP is a fictional character created by Scottish novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie. He’s a maverick of a lad, an impish sort who sought never grow up while flying about, making Captain Hook look increasingly like Captain Mook. tPP occupies himself with chasing his shadow at the Darlings (home of Wendy, John and Michael – avid Pan fans), hanging out with the mermaids, commemorating with the Indians, and tutoring the Lost Boys, all while gushing over his fairy jealous wingman, Tinker Bell (portrayed as a female pixie but wingman sounds more badass). More importantly, he pulled these off while rocking green leather tights. Is he slaying or yay?
“This has absolutely nothing to do with football,” you think. Ah! But it has almost everything to do with it. The popular catchphrase connected with Pan is ‘the boy who refuses to grow up.’ You’re surely thinking Balotelli epitomizes this.
I couldn’t disagree more. So, let’s take a little step back and examine the different sides to tPP – his genuine qualities, not the hasty generalizations. At the end of this exercise, feel free to sip that Neverland soup, or accept that even your most beloved football star has a young Peter Pan screaming inside of him. My God! Even Robin van Persie’s ghost haunts this piece.
1. Unending Youth: When Jay Z featured Mr Hudson on the remake of the classic ‘Forever Young’, little did we know he was secretly crushing on tPP. In Neverland, Pan is content to stay young and free. In football, these Pans fall into two categories: The Baby-faced Assassins (or scientifically, the Solksjaer Syndrome) and the Fine Wines.
A) Theo Walcott celebrated 10 years of staying at Arsenal and didn’t look a day older than when he signed at 16. If Lionel Messi (at Copa América) hadn’t taken a leaf out of Xabi Alonso’s bestseller – How to get away with Ginger– , he’ll still look like your wimpy kid brother. How is Oscar 25 and married, yet looks like your junior prom date? And, of course, we have football’s answer to One Direction! Kevin De Bruyne, Jussi Jääskeläinen,Thiago Silva, John Mikel Obi and lead singers Mario Götze and Javier Chicharito Hernández are…The Age Mis-Direction! They have a combined age of 177 and combined face of 17! Of course, ultimate Peter Pan is still Kaká: the older he gets, the alarmingly younger he appears.
B) For the Fine Wines, look no further than Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso. There’s something about midfield and maestro that means you age gracefully. Roguish looks aside, they still pull the strings like they were born yesterday. However, if you’re pushing 40 and Manuel Neuer still can’t beat you in ‘Game of Gloves’, you’re most certainly the true Peter Pan. Gigi Buffon, please take a bow!
2. Strength of Flight: tPP could soar whenever and wherever (albeit inconsistently), a quality that made Captain Hook cringe. It got to the point where Hook literally asked Pan to fight ‘man-to-man’ without flying, a move that almost cost the lad his life. Here, defenders’ inner Captain Hooks are letting out a collective sigh, thinking about the players who take joy in making them feel like complete idiots. These players always outjump them, always get the ball past the goalkeeper. These are the Aerial Assassins.
In the Premier League, Christian Benteke and Marouane Fellaini better not be your opposition. Diego Godin, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are terrific snatch-and-grabbers, La Liga style. Zlatan Ibrahimović doesn’t need to jump. He just turns his head a certain direction and Game Over. However, if you want perfection woven with poetry, climax laced with unadulterated roar on a silky-smooth tan and well-coiffed hair, it’s…football’s Becky-with-the-good-hair. The minute you hear ‘Siiiiiiii…honey, it’s in!’ you know Cristiano Ronaldo has given a proper lecture on how to be the perfect Aerial Monster, the Peter Pan way.
3. Free-Spirited: tPP is too carried away by his own brilliance to be worried about the effects of his idiosyncrasies. He owes no moral responsibility. He does things effortlessly. He was born a maverick. In football, there’s a gradual dearth of this flair. Pelé, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho…they’d gladly leave you for dead because quite frankly, they couldn’t control their awesomeness. And has any human been able to explain the phenomenon that is Lionel Messi? How many defenders and midfielders have retired when he breezed past them like he’s taking a stroll on a cold windy night at Stoke? How many strikers has he made feel they could have stuck to their early calling of being a Chef cos what they cooking on the pitch ain’t selling? Will we solve these puzzles? (Unfortunately, his very brilliance resigned him to international retirement)
Yet there’s one player who almost trumps this blitzing brilliance, then finishes it off with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Luis Suárez lives and breathes Peter Pan, truly, remarkably.
4. A-Z of Languages: If he spoke to the Darling kids alone, we’d better be able to relate. But tPP was blessed with a strange tongue, and its comprehension. He communicated with mermaids, Indians, Lost Boys and pirates beautifully. Trust me, languages can be very tasking. Just ask Roy Hodgson. The no-longer-current England manager speaks fluent English, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian, as well as some Danish, French and Finnish. FIFA President Gianni Infantino is fluent in Italian, French and German and also knows English, Portuguese and Arabic, traits that endeared him to us on nights of Champions league draws. Cesc Fàbregas gives Judas a run for his money by speaking four languages – Spanish, Catalan, English and French, making his twitter feed being the envy of all. Henrikh Mkhitaryan speaks six languages: Armenian, Russian, English, French, Portuguese and German. Yet, the heir to the Peter Pan throne of Tongues has to go to the man who puts the Arsen in Arsenal. Arsène Wenger oozes mastery in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and, most difficulty, Japanese. He had me at Kon-ni-chi-wa!
5. Sound of Music: For tPP, his voice and the flute were strong indications of his happy-go-lucky attitude. Footballers love music. Some love a good dance. A few have even tried a side hustle as musicians but we know how those always end up. Regardless, there are a select few who are blessed with the fingers in non-handball situations. Apart from saving Arsenal 15 points last season, Petr Cech uses his hands for the rock purpose of drumming. Mario Balotelli and Alexis Sánchez are adept at playing the piano. Tomáš Rosický and Slaven Bilić compete with the electric guitar. Daniel Sturridge and Clint Dempsey spitting the rhymes as Hip Hop MCs, and I think we have Numb Encore 2.0 on our hands.
6. Unity and Protection: With arms wide open, Pan has got you covered. Friendly, caring, homely, warm, Ruth B’s compelling song on Lost Boys gave everyone a wholesome look on where you can be if you only adopt tPP’s mantra. Peace, serenity, freedom. Not worrying about the world’s craziness. At first glance, it’s almost impossible to find that one person you can call football’s best friend (dogs all over the world are certainly hurt).
But the answer stands firm in the red half of Merseyside. The 6′ 4″ German calls himself the ‘Normal One’ but rock stars don’t do normal. From warm fuzzy hugs to tender pats on youngsters’ backs (contrasting with his fist pumps), to his blinder interviews and the way he unifies fans across the world, it’s no surprise most feel he’s the dad they never had. Jürgen Klopp lights up the game and lights up the world, making it a better place for you and for me. If that isn’t the Ultimate Peter Pan then Michael Jackson is. But since they took down the King of Pop’s statue from Craven Cottage, only Klopp has a right to this football title.
Peter Pan has illustrated how just one glance is never enough. Look deeper, search harder and you’ll see true beauty lies within. It’s never perfect, but see through the flaws and you just might call yourself…beautiful.
So is our game. Football’s perfect imperfections are just right for us. The seen and unseen handballs (depending on the which side of the Diego Maradona, Thierry Henry or Luis Suárez divide you fall on), playing the wrong anthem, a dive or burlesque performance on the field greatly inspired by Sergio Busquets and some shocking expletives at a simple throw-in gone awry are so meant to be. The spoiled brats are part of the game too, in addition to the colourful stars who never age, never stop flying, never stop being free, never stop speaking, never stop the music and never let us go.
They light up the already beautiful game and are without a doubt, the true Peter Pan.
I’ll rather have them or nothing!