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Fraud or Freud? Fernando Torres, workrate, one-and-a-half jokes and a cricketing anecdote

January 13, 2011

LIVERPOOL slipped to yet another defeat last night, allowing Blackpool to complete a League double over them even after a third minute goal from Fernando Torres.

That equalled the Spain striker’s quickest Premiership goal, and went some way towards ending the media hoo-ha over a perceived lack of effort. This had deepened in its intensity since the disappointing draw with Birmingham in September. Jamie Redknapp’s tinny outrage and Roy Hodgson’s implied critique fuelled the fire.

There was always going to be a dip in Torres’ form – even if, as new manager Kenny Dalglish has stressed, greater names have gone through worse.  Few players could maintain the kind of form that saw Torres become the fastest Liverpool player to 50 goals. And, of course, the British media loves a foreign player lacking the appetite for destruction inherent in our Bartons, Bellamys and Gerrards.

There was a moment in the Blackpool game, though, that got WAF wondering whether there was something more malignant going on than just a mix of schadenfreude and jingoism.

It was when the ESPN commentator described the new/old, hungrier Torres as “a rabbit, ferreting about” in the final third.

Now, that’s a slightly funny mixing of metaphors. But it also points to a somewhat reductive view of a foreign footballer, to the point where he becomes almost completely ‘other’ to us.

***

To take this one step at a time:

The animal imagery dehumanises Torres. At a superficial level, it sounds demeaning to describe such an elegant, medal-strewn player in terms associated with journeymen defenders. It’s difficult (personally) not to be reminded of one of the great sayings from that other British-invented game, cricket.

There is debate over who said it first, but it goes something like this (initiates need to know that bowlers at the bottom of the batting order are called rabbits. Facing 90mph balls at 22 yards will explain why):

Top-order batsman 1: Our [bowler] seems rather anxious, even for a rabbit.

Top-order batsman 2: Oh, he’s a ferret. He goes in after the rabbits.

Thus the excitement at Torres actually putting a shift in is revealed as merely a further denigration. With his lack of form, he lacks humanity, in this reading. If he really tried, was really back to his best, then he wouldn’t be a rabbit at all.

He certainly wouldn’t be referred to as a hybrid creature (rabbit and ferret). This makes him seem unnatural, even if only by mistake. There is the further semantic trace of ‘rabbitting on’. So Torres’ own, foreign language is added to his apparent ‘otherness’ as well. Were he firing on all cylinders and enjoying service from his team-mates, he would not be rabbitting on, ie. talking to himself, not participating, but actually conversing.

But then, Torres in England has always been ‘unnatural’, even at his best. Especially at his best. When asked why he had not done more to sign him, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed that he was not a “natural goal scorer”. It isn’t very far from “not…natural” to “unnatural”. The chants about Torres’ gender from the lowest minds of opposing fans backed up the point.

Rather too much, perhaps. The theory goes that the ‘other’ also exerts considerable allure over observers. Torres perhaps proves this, given that his name is still bandied about transfer rumour sites, linked with Man Utd, by Man Utd fans, for Man Utd fans.

***

If it seems a little far-fetched to find bigotry in a two-word slip of the tongue, let’s look at another example, another Liverpool striker. Let’s look at Emile Heskey.

Heskey is characterised as the opposite of El Niño. He is the archetypal worker, putting in the spade work that so benefited his strike partners. Yet in his way he is viewed with the same suspicion as the Spaniard lauded as an artist, never scoring the same goal twice (and that footballing conversation with Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney has largely taken place in asides to journalists, a more home-grown ‘rabbitting’).

As Torres’ opposite, it is apt that Heskey’s ‘othering’ came not through a slump in form but in success. Remember his ‘DJ’ goal celebration, spinning an imaginary record, holding invisible headphones to his ears? Well, he couldn’t hear anything, and the football community didn’t want to. In that one gesture he managed to alienate himself from the traditional fan base of English football, one that enjoys the  – let’s be honest – white rock ‘n’ roll on the tannoy as opposed to the slick, turn-of-the-century garage he apparently admired.

And let’s not forget that at the World Cup this summer, in a country 20 years out of apartheid, Heskey hid from English reporters on a golf course, international symbol of ingrained bigotry.

Let’s not forget that the bottom line for our media seems to be that you just couldn’t tell what these strikers are thinking. They are inscrutable in their pomp, and when they miss gilt-edged chances.

And let’s not forget that Heskey will always, to most, be a ‘donkey’.

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