Beyond the Emile Heskey jokes is a player worth admiring

Emile Heskey is crap. Everyone knows this. It is Fact Incarnate. In England, more people know that Emile Heskey is crap than know the words to the national anthem. Fact.

Just before the 2010 World Cup, When Saturday Comes magazine’s cover had a picture of Heskey next to Kaka and Messi under the mirth-inducing headline “World Stars Ready.” Because Heskey is not a world star, see. He’s crap.

Thing is, though: as the cover suggests, Emile Heskey played in the 2010 World Cup. And playing in a World Cup is pretty much the polar opposite of being crap. It’s just about as good as it gets. Heskey also played in the 2002 World Cup, by the way.

So there are a few arguments that can be marshaled to counter the prevailing sentiment regarding the soccer abilities of Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey, who scored on Friday for Bolton Wanderers at the age of 36.

Namely: 62 England caps, nine World Cup finals appearances, three European Championships appearances across two tournaments, more than 500 Premier League games for Leicester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Wigan and Aston Villa, and career transfer fees totaling in excess of $40 million. Although we the people know the truth, that Heskey is crap, more than a few senior decision-makers in English soccer have, bizarrely, reached a different conclusion.

Belarus v England - FIFA2010 World Cup Qualifier

The guy has 62 England caps. This is the same as Emlyn Hughes, David Platt and Chris Waddle, and more than Peter Beardsley, Des Walker, Jimmy Greaves and Paul Gascoigne. It’s 10 more than Glenn Hoddle! Heskey’s England career spanned 11 years. Eight England coaches named him to their rosters, likely ruling out conspiracy, bribery, coercion or other fraudulent behavior on Big Emile’s part as a plausible explanation for this aberration.

So what explains the massive disparity between his career achievements and the popular perception? Why do Norwegian adolescents produce YouTube videos mocking him that get 400,000 views? What did he ever do to the good people of Stavanger?

It’s his lack of grace and his subpar finishing skills — he averaged about a goal every five games — that made him a clumsy emblem of British players’ weak technique and reliance on physicality. Since he had such a long top-level career, the blooper real is extensive. And his return from Australia is fresh meat for meme artists and Twitter wits.

But in his prime, Heskey worked hard, was unselfish, strong, and often made his teammates better, notably Michael Owen. And those simple yet strangely rare virtues were enough to give him what, statistically, has been — and still is — an outstanding career.

The best teams have a diverse range of players. Orchestras have drummers as well as violinists. But in this sport the functional, the utilitarian, the unstylish, aren’t overlooked, ignored, or underrated – they’re disrespected, taunted, parodied. A Twitter account devoted to the tediousness of Manchester City’s James Milner has 369,000 followers.

Former Arsenal defender Tony Adams won 66 England caps, captained club and country and was his nation’s best center back during the 1990s. There’s a statue of him outside Emirates Stadium. His nickname? “Donkey.”

There’s an element of self-aggrandizement in all this, because by making Heskey and his ilk the butt of jokes, we’re cutting them down to our size and making jealous sniping seem like rational judgment. We’re indulging in the fantasy that, given a bit of luck and the right physique, we could have been just as good as them. It’s just that during our formative years we wasted our time reading books and going to school, rather than doing something more useful, like kicking around a soccer ball all day.

With every comically Row X-bound shot from three yards out, Heskey’s helping us write the comforting fiction that we too could have had professional soccer careers, because if this guy can, anyone can. OK, we could never do what David Silva or Andrea Pirlo do, but Heskey? Sure. I’ve got better touch than him. So has my grandma. And she’s dead.

But it’s not true. We’d like to think otherwise, but sports jobs, like any other performing roles in the entertainment industry, are not secured by pure skill. If they were, this guy …

… would be MLS MVP, instead of a novelty act. Nor is success in soccer is all about physical attributes, because if it was we’d see dozens of Olympic 100 meter runners in the pro leagues, and 6-foot-8 former defender Hugo Rodrigues would have played for a better team than Yeovil Town. Or maybe he’d have entered the NBA.

Prospering in soccer is about circumstance and chance – but also requires character, determination, finding your niche and making the absolute most of your ability. You know, the kind of fundamental values we try to instill in our kids, the ones we say matter more than anything else. So Heskey, if we’re honest, is a bit of a role model – crappy as that sounds.

Photo credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

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