Imagining World Football Personalities as Historical Figures
It is hardly a secret that among the things that make football so compelling are the personalities associated with it.
Naturally, the same holds true for every sport—indeed, for all life’s pastimes—but it’s especially true when it comes to football.
Few activities are as worldly, and as a result the sheer breadth of personality we see in football makes for a richness of choice, a truly global wealth of characteristics.
And these characteristics take hold of us because we’ve noticed them before.
We recognize them from history, from past figures whose attributes—whose personalities—have shaped everything from politics to war to art to isolated, yet important, moments in time.
Following are seven people from the footballing world who have something timeless about them.
Granted, they may not be precise clones of the historical personages that accompany them in this slideshow, but they have at least one characteristic that connects them to a story much bigger than football.
Here are some football personalities imagined as historical figures.
Garrincha as Ludwig Van Beethoven
Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born with a deformed spine and a right leg bent awkwardly and six centimetres shorter than his left.
His sister observed how small he was compared to other children and nicknamed him “Garrincha,” or “wren,” according to Biography.com.
But Garrincha would become perhaps the greatest winger in football history, winning a pair of Brazilian titles and the World Cup in both 1958 and 1962.
In excelling despite a disability, Garrincha was much like Ludwig van Beethoven, who lived three decades with a hearing problem and one almost totally deaf.
Nevertheless, he didn’t let the loss of his hearing impede his composition, and all nine of his symphonies, numerous concerti, piano trios and string quartets were written without the aid of two good ears.
George Best as Hunter S. Thompson
At his finest, George Best was the greatest attacker to hail from the United Kingdom—a quick, tricky winger who from 1968 to 1972 scored at least 20 goals per season for Manchester United.
Winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1968, Best also won First Division titles with the Red Devils in 1965 and 1967 and helped United to a first European Cup in 1968.
But a hard-living lifestyle eventually caught up with the Northern Irishman, who died at the age of 59 following multiple organ failure.
“I spend a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he famously said. “The rest I just squandered.” (BBC)
Thriving almost concurrently with Best was “Gonzo journalism” pioneer Hunter S. Thompson, a writer who couldn’t help but include himself in the exciting, and often reckless, behaviour of his subjects.
Like Best, Thompson battled addiction, although he was always forthright about his fondness for drugs and alcohol.
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” he once said. (Washington Post)
Zinedine Zidane as Michelangelo
As a footballer, Zinedine Zidane was a virtuoso.
Everything he did—every movement, every touch of the ball—had an element of beauty about it, and there were numerous layers to his work.
The France international could be both mesmerising in presentation and heroic, even tragic, in the final product.
Two World Cup finals in which he amassed two goals and a sending-off is proof enough of that. But was it not art?
Similarly, Michelangelo was widely regarded as the greatest painter of his time.
And while he might be most famous for his Creation of Adam fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he also showed himself in the chaos of The Conversion of Saul and passion of The Crucifixion of St. Peter.
Xavi Hernandez as Juan Belmonte
The two sides come out and there is a grand "paseo" and the men stand expressionless and stone-jawed as the national anthem is played.
Then there is a whistle and the "corrida" has begun.
At first La Roja experiment with the bull and learn its weaknesses. Andres Iniesta and David Silva, like "banderilleros," goad the bull and Xavi, like Juan Belmonte, watches and thinks about the bull and learns its behaviour.
Then he strides into the centre of the "plaza de toros" and tests what he has learned about the bull.
After Xavi has made his passes the "picadors," Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, tire the bull and prepare it for the moment of truth.
The pageant has come down to the matador and the bull, and although Xavi executes his best passes his face remains severe.
One last time the matador and bull are engaged in a moment of honest mortality and then it is finished. Xavi’s final pass has found Jordi Alba and the final act has been completed.
It was done well and clean and the plaza de toros knows it has witnessed a grim act done honourably.
Socrates as Leonardo Da Vinci
It’s not to his namesake that Sao Paulo-born Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira is best compared (although there are some intriguing philosophical parallels), but to Leonardo da Vinci.
The archetypal Renaissance Man, da Vinci went wherever his interests took him—from mainstream pursuits such as painting and sculpting to the cutting edge of biology and engineering.
And in his spare time he found the odd moment to satisfy his curiosities in botany and cartography—that is, when he wasn’t writing or learning how to play a musical instrument.
Like Leonardo, Brazilian footballing icon Socrates was never going to be satisfied with a single occupation.
While at Corinthians he put his political mind to work in opposing the military dictatorship, and his other pursuits included television punditry and writing.
A licensed doctor, he earned his medical papers while still turning out for Corinthians week in, week out, and upon his death in 2011 he was celebrated as a “genius” by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, as per ESPN FC.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Ernest Hemingway
There is something about Zlatan Ibrahimovic that makes him more interesting than most footballers.
And he knows it.
Perhaps it’s his vanity—almost justified, given his talent—that drives the force of his character. Whatever the case, the Paris Saint-Germain striker has become larger than life in his own time.
A social media master, best-selling author and occasional recording artist, Zlatan (he’s even had his first name trademarked) has done it all.
Much like Ernest Hemingway.
One of the 20th century’s most compelling figures, Hemingway lived a life other men dreamed of living.
He was tough with his prose, tough with his surroundings, tough with his relationships. As “Papa,” he became almost a caricature of himself—one he never hesitated to play into.
And yet, as Zlatan did with Antonio Cassano, Rodney Strasser and Pep Guardiola, Hemingway ended up hurting many of the people he was closest to.
There are drawbacks, it would seem, to being the most interesting man in the world.
Jose Mourinho as Aristotle
In 343 BC, Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor of Philip’s son, Alexander—the future Alexander the Great.
(Aristotle’s relationship with the young Alexander is exceptionally described by Annabel Lyon in The Golden Mean, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada.)
Already a renowned orator, advisor, philosopher and scientist, Aristotle encouraged his pupil to appreciate the balance between courage and recklessness—to search for a middle way.
History tells us that the lessons went in one of Alexander’s ears and straight out the other.
Jose Mourinho might have made a better student.
Club management’s ultimate pragmatist, he may just as well have been reciting Aristotle when asked to describe his Inter Milan side in the days before the 2010 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich.
“A football team is made of balance,” he told the BBC. “I don’t believe in a crazy attacking team; I don’t believe in a crazy defensive team...Football is made [with] balance.”