There is an indelible image from last season’s Manchester-themed FA Cup semi-final. It is a photo taken just after the final whistle, of a bare-chested Pablo Zabaleta screaming with delight into the camera lens. It was reminder, if one was needed, that here was a man with cult-hero status at Manchester City football club.
But what makes someone a cult hero? Well for starters, their football ability is paramount, the rules stating that it must be pitched at a certain level for the squad in which they perform. The cult hero won’t be the best player in the world. They probably won’t be the worst in the world either. But what they may lack in natural ability they tend to make up for in effort and application. A cult hero may well end a match bloodied. The cult hero that gained approval through effort will never stop trying, even if the team is 4-0 down with a minute to play. He will put his body on the line.
Some are just nice guys too. In a world where footballers are perceived as aloof, detached mercenaries, a player who seems as normal as the average fan is revered. They say the right things, they interact with fans, they have a bond with the club. But ultimately there are a hundred paths to cult-hero status, most involving being different from the norm. The player might be a one-club man (though this suggests legend rather cult status), he might be plain crazy, he might watch matches in the stands when injured with the fans, he might annoy opposition players to the point that cult-hero status is attained due to his hatred by other clubs’ fans.
And speaking of crazy, there’s Mario Balotelli. If Balotelli just came to training every day then went home and watched television, a few fans would now be questioning the level of his recent perfomances. A few still do of course, as there is merit in this discussion, but in some ways his day-job has been overshadowed by his off-field antics, and turned him into a cult-hero for fans of many clubs. It’s just a shame that most of the stories about him are fabricated.
There is a fast-track route to cult-staus – scoring a vital goal. Be it the goal to secure promotion, win a title, avoid relegation, or just beat a hated rival, one vital goal can be enough. Paul Dickov springs to mind, though he had effort and application too, but there’s no beating Jimmy Glass. Score a goal to avoid relegation from the football league? Check. Do it in the last minute? Check. What’s that, he’s a goalkeeper? Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.
Often, the cult-hero comes from foreign climes, bringing with them exotic ways, a different approach to life, and if you’re lucky with a cult-hero, a crazy haircut. Imagine if Carlos Valderrama had played for your football club. I’d say it would be pretty likely he would have attained cult status.
But a few years ago, the BBC’s Football Focus programme conducted a poll amongst fans to find an all time Cult XI. The results were disappointing, as the list was basically a group of great players, but not ones that you’d associated with a cult following. After all, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Cristiano Ronaldo were on the list.
But cult heroes can also be borne from disaster, thus achieving their status with fans of other clubs. Take Jamie Pollock, scorer of one of the most spectacular own-goals of all time, a beautiful header that deprived his Manchester City team of victory in a relegation “six-pointer” against QPR. Soon City were down, whilst QPR stayed up. Pollock had cult-hero status, but with the wrong set of fans, and QPR fans hijacked a poll to find the most influential human being of the past two thousand years, thus ensuring Pollock won, pushing Jesus Christ and Karl Marx into second and third place. And talking of City, the juvenile humour commonplace in a football crowd during uneventful matches saw Salzburg’s Alan get his own series of chants due to the Englishness of his name. Even City’s official website penned a tribute.
So here’s to football’s cult heroes, the lifeblood of the game. Every teams needs supreme effort, a wind-up merchant, an eccentric, a man who stands out from the rest, or who truly serves the club. A mohican hairstyle is just a bonus.
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