The Myth of the "Stupid" Footballer

illya mclellan@illya mclellan @illbehaviorNZSenior Analyst IOctober 6, 2008

A couple of years ago I was engaged in a discussion with several friends on a certain footballer.  Said player happened to be about the only footballer these people had heard of. Of course, he is none other than the much maligned and criticized, David Beckham.

It ended up being more of an argument than a discussion.  I tried to explain what I thought was the importance of physical intelligence; the idea of mental capacity being transferred from a bookish knowledge into physical knowledge.

I have always had a major problem with those who seek to simplify the exploits of a highly skilled sportsman into the category of instinctual and genetic inheritance.

This could very well become a piece about any sport, but as I am a participant in and a follower of football, I will devote this article to football and footballers.

I am of the mind that any footballer who reaches the higher realms of sporting achievement not only has an above average intellect but also demonstrates and exercises this intellect from week to week, and even day to day. This is shown with the rigorous training schedules that today's players adhere to.

David Beckham, for me, was the perfect example of the sort of esoteric knowledge that is gained from years and years of practicing the art of football.

He may appear in the media to be what some would call "dumb," or "not that bright," but since when has eloquence been a characteristic of intelligence? This in itself is a fabricated idea, claiming that those who are learned enough to be able to speak clearly and confidently in public are invariably of greater intelligence than those who cannot.

Take him away from the glare of the media spotlight, away from the podium at a press conference, and place him on a football pitch. Here you will see the intelligence this man possesses, when he proceeds to place the football on a dime positioned sixty yards away.

Is this not an example of intelligence? Of learned behaviour?

I would argue until asphyxia that it is.

Take the example of a top level defender as well, say, former Arsenal player, Tony Adams.

Adams is also a great example because of the extent to which his off-field behaviour has been attributed to his level of stupidity. His drinking, fighting and car-crashing exploits are well known. They were used by many as an example of the inherent brainlessness of footballers, and even those who followed the game, in certain quarters anyway.

But, put this man as marshal of a four-man defence against an attack that may include such greats as Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Ian Rush, and he would show a great level of intelligence. Though, his intelligence shows the mind's ability to mould itself for specific physical endeavours. 

This is something that is rather special. It creates love and admiration in the eyes of those who follow the game, not stupidity, as is sometimes insinuated.

Again, it could be asked, is this ability, honed from years of training and play, not an example of a strong intellectual capacity?

I used these two players as examples, though many could have sufficed, because of the hard time they have gotten in the press for being "dim-witted" or "slow."  Of course, they are anything but.

Could a slow, dimwit score a free kick in the pressure-cooker of Old Trafford to ensure England a place at the world Cup finals?

Could a slow, dimwit make defensive play after defensive play to deny a Liverpool team a victory at Anfield that would have given them the title? If not for his contribution, Arsenal could not have walked away with a 2-0 victory, taking with them the league trophy to London in 1989.

I think I have made enough points in favour of the esoteric knowledge needed by brilliant and talented footballers.  Anyone who would argue to the contrary is kidding themselves.

These footballers may not be Nobel Laureates or Pulitzer Prize winners, but they do possess a sharpness of intellect that is identifiable by their prowess of the game. It is a precise skill to know how to manipulate an inflated piece of material about a football pitch at high speed.

It is time that this ability is truly recognised by the educated elite in a more real and less condescending way than has ever been shown before.