We’ve all been there. Kit laid out 12 hours in advance, shin pads placed beside your bed in hope of avoiding that inevitable morning scramble, boots gleaming and you can’t sleep because you’re too excited. Nerves and enthusiasm battling it out in your stomach. Come rain, wind or shine, this was my – and most likely your – life for a number of years, and why? Because we all love playing football.
At the highest level however, there’s no time to love the game anymore. Football has become much more than a sport. It’s become an industry that’s driven by money, impatience and extreme levels of pressure that make it impossible to revel in the simplicity of 22 players trying to get a ball into a goal.
Which is exactly why it was so refreshing to see Yannick Bolasie on the sofa with his boots on, itching to make his comeback after rupturing his cruciate ligament back in February.
Bolasie is a unique personality. He made his way through non-league with Hillingdon, before going to Floriana, in the Maltese Premier League, then Plymouth, Bristol City and Crystal Palace. He said: “I’ve always loved playing. I didn’t get paid at Hillingdon, but every time I scored, they gave me a burger!”
His move to Everton initially raised a few eyebrows, but it’s clear to see that in a side full of attacking midfielders who value technicality over physicality, they’ve missed his direct style. Rarely do you find players with speed, strength and skill, but the Lyon-born forward possesses all three in abundance. A gait that puts most Olympic sprinters to shame, the core of a gymnast and feet quicker than Michael Flatley on speed – these are the attributes that leave you on the edge of your seat.
How often do you see someone bend down and flap their hand at the ball, before breezing past an international defender with over 30 caps for his country? Or managing to wriggle his way out of the corner flag with a bit of skill that somehow manipulated the ball onto his thigh and back into space?
Bolasie makes football fun again. He embodies that youthful naivety we all love to lose ourselves in come 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and we’re better for it. Silverware and prestige are undoubtedly important but ultimately, we watch to be entertained – and entertain he does. A lover of music and a self-proclaimed prankster, you can see his charisma shining through on the pitch which then filters through to those in the stands.
The same can be said of Santi Cazorla. It’s been nine surgeries, one skin graft and 14 months since he last took to the pitch for Arsenal – in their 6-0 win over Ludogorets in the Champions League – and is currently continuing another bout of rehabilitation back in his native Spain. An undetected infection to the Achilles left three types of bacteria lurking down there and the 33-year-old was lucky to avoid amputation. He was even told he should be happy just to ever walk again, never mind play football.
Cazorla is another personality – both on and off the pitch – that radiates a sense of warmth. Rarely will the Spaniard be without a smile on his face, and just taking five minutes to filter through Arsenal training pictures, he’s always chuckling away at something or giving someone a cuddle. His style of play is vastly different to that of Bolasie’s, but able to spread just as much joy. Comfortable on either foot, spraying passes from left to right, weaving past players in congested areas and all with a first touch that’s lighter than air. He is the archetypal, modern Spanish player and his absence his been felt more than most in North London.
English football needs these players. In an environment where middle ground is non-existent, with one bad run worthy of a sacking and social media reflecting the nastiness in some quarters, the likes of Bolasie and Cazorla (and to a lesser extent Paul Pogba and Mohamed Salah) give us a chance to not only focus on the game again, but enjoy it as well. Footballers are extremely talented, highly paid individuals but we are often guilty of forgetting that they’re still just big kids – exactly like us.