The term maverick is defined thus:
A person pursuing rebellious, even potentially disruptive, policies or ideas.
An interesting concept, indeed that description would hardly endear you to a politician, a co-worker, or especially a random stranger you’ve never met. So why, in sport, are the mavericks so popular?
Let’s face the facts; everyone in sport loves someone with a bit of personality. Anything a little bit crazy, or just something to move away from the robotic nature of the so-called public ‘role models.’ Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need our sports stars behaving like John Terry or Joey Barton, but those two aren’t mavericks. Just idiots. No, the ones the public take a shining to are those with the larger-than-life personalities, the ones with the daft anecdotes, the ones who capture our imaginations.
Take Mario Balotelli. His petulant behaviour during his first season with ManchesterCity didn’t exactly go down well. There was the arrogant back-heel, the stroppy demeanour, the Rooney-esque red card, lashing out in frustration. Yet all that has changed. Balotelli has, in the space of six or seven months, made himself football’s most popular figure. The winds of discontent have swept through the sport again, it’s reputation tarnished once more in the murky atmosphere of racism, fan violence and Carlos Tevez. Yet Balotelli has kept a smile on the supporters’ faces. You can barely go a day without hearing a story about Mad Mario and his crazy antics. Any normal person letting off a load of fireworks in their bathroom a night before their biggest game of the season would be branded an immature fool. In football? Nahh. Mario became a cult hero, with everyone dying to hear the latest adventures of the bonkers Italian. ‘Why always me’ and all that. Balotelli apparently understands the values of his eccentric behaviour. Rumours suggest he employs a PR agent to help spread falsities, ensuring his name is never out of the column inches. Hear the story about him paying for 100 tramps to sleep in the Hilton over Christmas? Not true. The one about him dressed as Santa handing out presents? Not true. The one about him visiting a women’s prison in Brescia because he was ‘curious? ’Ah ok, that one is true. You get the picture though. Being a maverick definitely has its benefits in sport, it does wonders for your public image and in football, that public image is all important.
Football isn’t the only sport where a maverick shines through. Take cricket. Two of the game’s most popular figures in recent years had personalities even bigger than their waistlines. You could watch Shane Warne and Freddie Flintoff battle it out at the crease for days given the entertainment they provided. Warney’s sledging was legendary, take note of his on-field slanging matches with Daryll Cullinan of South Africa for evidence of that. He smoked, he drank and controversy followed him wherever he went. And Australia loved him for it. As for Flintoff, this was a man so amusing, even the Aussies took a liking to him. The rugby players at this year’s World Cup got hammered in the press for their drunken antics, yet Captain Flintoff almost drowned on a pedalo in Antigua and the whole situation was essentially laughed off. Top cricketers, top blokes, top sporting mavericks.
Does being a maverick help your game? Well Mohammed Ali was known as the ‘Louisville Lip,’ he did things differently and tore up the boxing world. Others, like Prince Naseem Hamed took their showboating a little too far, remember the flying carpet into the ring? Many critics felt his arrogant approach took control of his fighting ability and restricted the Prince’s achievements. Paul Gascoigne is another. Mad as a box of frogs, the England midfielder rose to the big occasion, his cheeky-chappy public image helped the whole country fall in love with Gazza after Italia 90, while he scored England’s greatest ever goal in Euro 96 against Scotland, following the infamous ‘dentist’s chair’ night out. His lifestyle did eventually wear him down though, and his eccentric off the field behaviour essentially ruined his career. Even people like John McEnroe (Super Brat) or Brian Clough (Old Big ‘Ed) played on their rebellious nature to help them through tough times, and although they were never too popular, it certainly helped their careers.
The flamboyant personalities are all but gone from sport these days and you have to search long and hard to find a great entertainer. The role of the sportsman in the public eye is far too important now and it has sucked the creativity out of players’ personalities. Mavericks can turn a game, inspire the crowd or spur their teammates on to greater things. But just be careful when it all goes wrong. Over to you Mr Balotelli.