Society likes actors and athletes to be talented, but also beautiful. We’re kinda superficial that way. George Best belted in goals from the wings of Manchester United, but you’re more likely to stumble upon his other conquests in a Google Image search. Cristiano Ronaldo’s attention to his hair and fashion embodies the (annoying) ethos of the player-as-playboy modern athlete. They are on TV and in the papers a lot, ergo, they must be handsome. If sport is art and the goal of art is the pursuit of beauty, we must ask: can the truly ugly produce beautiful works?
Yes. Just ask Franck Ribery.
Franck may lack a winning smile, but at one time has a young hot thing (at least in the soccer sense). Back in 2006, the French squad was talented but long in the tooth. The midfield trio of Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, and Zinedine Zidane oozed class, touch, and vision, but suffered from some pretty slow legs. Thierry Henry, isolated as a sole striker, rarely got the chance to stretch his legs. On the left, a younger Florent Malouda suffered from a rare affliction: Maloludaitis, whereby a creative talent is slower than an elderly tortoise. Luckily, on the right, France counted on a promising young winger who played for Marseille: Franck Ribery.
The man from Marseille was electric. He constantly bounced around the right of the midfield, begging, pleading, fighting, groveling, doing anything and everything to get a touch of the ball. One his teammates fed him, he was off to the races, fearlessly dribbling at leftbacks and centerbacks and holding midfielders. His gait resembles an ostrich, his upper body erect and stiff, his arms pinned to his side, but his magnificently long legs galloping up acreage. Ribery’s small midsection combined with long legs gives him the dual blessing of a lower center of gravity and serious leg-span. Combined with his ambidexterity, he’s impossible to defend to one side. But if you do try to corral him to the right or left, he’ll turn you inside out.
France lost the final of that World Cup and has disappointed at international tournaments, but Ribery has won everything possible at the club level with German super team Bayern Munich. While age and injuries have limited other wingers, Ribery has gotten better with age. Why? Positional play. Ribery no longer marauds along the haflway line – instead, he patiently waits wide near the corner flag, alone, like a lead climber on the summit of a mountain. Eventually, the ball cycles to him, and then, when most players feel cornered, trapped, boxed in, he explodes to life with a feint, a rapid fire two-step, or a shimmy.
Coming from the corner, Ribery’s unorthodox starting point throws defenders off. He often dribbles towards the midfield at an angle, away from the goal and slightly towards the center of the field. Years of training have taught defenders to prevent forwards from running towards the end line, not away from it. The cognitive dissonance slows their minds and their feet, allowing Ribery to whip in a vicious cross, play a one-two with a midfielder, or sneak in a near-post shot on goal. Just look at his goal against Manchester City a few years ago. In a span of seconds, he turned nothing into something.
While Arjen Robben, his clubmate, almost always cuts inside to his left and shoot, Ribery’s wing play is varied. He can cross and shoot with both feet, and uses the outside of both feet to deadly effect. In that sense, an approaching Ribery turns a plane of limited possibilities into Koch’s snowflake (for the mathematically unenlightened: a fractal curve that manages to be infinite yet still exists in a bounded plane). He often looks more at a defender than the ball glued to his foot: if the defender leans right, he cuts left. If the defender steps up, he dribbles around him. If the defender backs off, he crosses or shoots.
Ribery exemplifies the wondrous, endless possibilities of creativity in soccer. He’s even more impressive for proudly owning his own scars. Ribery’s facial disfiguration is the result of a tragic car accident. Merely a baby, he suffered serious lacerations to the face and needed over 100 stitches. Despite being able to easily afford plastic surgery, Ribery has claimed that “The scars are part of me, and people will just have to take me the way I am.” Given his talent and creativity, they already have.
—Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on iTunes.