A footballer pushes a referee.
It’s a gesture that happens rarely, if ever. Strictly verboten. Players and referees are frequently locked in petty squabbles on the pitch, and while these can be heated to the point of aggression, they never topple over into direct touching. In football, use of the hands is generally prohibited: touching the referee and handball have punitive consequences.
Along with millions of others I saw Ronaldo touch the referee. Now, I despise football and all the now not-so-beautiful game represents in terms of the super-rich and class treachery. But I catch glimpses of a game every now and then – how can any of us avoid them? – and I was lucky enough to witness Ronaldo’s transgression. The referee can’t fight fire with fire, and so was unlikely to retaliate. He may have wanted to push back, or punch his lights out. Such is the player’s mystique, the referee knows he is by far the weakest between them – Ronaldo’s body has a higher value, it means more to the world than the referee’s puny frame. No doubt Ronaldo has a fiery temper; the referee knows his younger and better would floor him backstage afterwards. The referee doles out the rules, but the player reigns in the natural order of the beautiful game.
The referee walked away, with more than a look of hurt on his face. Or was that indignation at the thought Ronaldo touched him and he couldn’t fight back?
It’s not long before some will project fantasies onto the scene of offense, the referee being the jilted lover to Ronaldo’s figure of sadism. This has something to do with football’s painterly image, which teases out images more akin to the classics than to the twenty-first century world.
Look at the more compelling images from football’s photographic archive and you are viewing the sort of composition painters through the ages have laboured for hours to perfect. Altercations on the pitch can look like the moment Judas’s betrayal is laid bare, impassioned to-ing and fro-ing between the figures as the irreversible advances towards the catastrophic. Passion is a loaded word here, and it is easy to confuse the injury provoked by betrayal with the feeling of being gutted as an unrequited lover.
The sexual charge of one powerful man expressing dissent by touching another man cannot have gone unnoticed by at least some of those watching the game. Ronaldo behaves as if he owns the world. He is simultaneously repellant and sexually magnetic. (Many heterosexual male fans would likely deny it, but they cannot refuse the fact.) There is a perfection to his appearance that borders on ugliness, although our perceptions will be influenced by the man’s actions. Ronaldo’s skin is not the same as the skin with which we mere mortals are burdened. He looks and acts as if he is immortal. Some would say that temperamentally he is thin-skinned, but his skin looks as if it has moulded on by the toy manufacture Mattel – strong and impenetrable, with immunity from the process of ageing.
As a name, Ronaldo looks and sounds as if it is protected by copyright. Like many footballers of his generation, Ronaldo is a brand, one that could be traded on the stock exchange. Thoughts of Ronaldo are tied up with the idea of Portugal. I’m not sure whether this meets with the approval of Portuguese citizens, but the narcissistic footballer has become some sort of conduit for the nation. Ronaldo is likely to be patriotic – how can he avoid it, playing for the national team? Of course, there are many facets to Portugal, historically, culturally, and so on, but our first port of call for Portugal is not Porto but Ronaldo. Only alcohol can unseat egotistical footballers as a national symbol, which means that port may be prized higher even than Ronaldo as the country’s biggest asset. The increasing popularity of the pastel de nata – once a rare sight in a few delis but now widely available in the Co-op – means that many Brits are likely to be reminded of Portugal by way of a custard tart than the oiled athlete himself.
If it seems I am indulging in crude cultural stereotyping it is merely to make a point about what lies beneath such symbols of national notoriety, namely that of the slow-burning, because apparently ungraspable, figure of the writer, who projects a nation’s image back onto itself in ways that unsettle all the old certainties and norms.
I would love to know if Ronaldo has read his compatriot Fernando Pessoa. Given the writer’s modernism, I am guessing he hasn’t. Even a brief acquaintance with Livro do desassossego por Bernardo Soares (The Book of Disquiet) confirms Ronaldo is as far from Fernando’s temperament as it is possible to be. I should say Bernardo Soares’s temperament, here, since Pessoa is famed for his use of heteronyms, fictional names behind which the writer wished to conceal his identity, something Ronaldo (or the investment portfolio known as RONALDO) cannot accept even if he may desire the secrecy.
Unsettling the status and operation of the proper name is consistent with an ‘author’ with whom literature has come to identify the model of an incomplete, chaotic archive that resists the designation of an oeuvre. The material discovered after Pessoa’s death in a trunk under his bed provided the material for what is known in English as The Book of Disquiet. It is difficult to know where to draw the line with respect to the modernism of this text: is it fragmented because of its modernism, or is it fragmented because it was never completed as an integrated text by its author? The text’s urban setting and existentialism means it shares many affinities with other works written at the same time and that are identified as modernist. The reader is left with the impression that had Pessoa survived, The Book of Disquiet would have steadfastly remained a fragmentary work, its modernist edges sharpened rather than smoothed out. This is what the material handed down to its readers seems to call for.
I write this on the day Serpent’s Tail in the UK publishes a ‘complete edition’ of The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa’s dedicated readers are likely to lament this edition’s claims to completeness, having hung on for so long to the subversive pleasure of reading a text structured around blanks. I await the arrival of my copy. In fact, I started reading the only standard edition of The Book of Disquiet last night. All this will be changed by the birth of the ‘complete edition’. For a start, I wonder what Pessoa scholars will think. Aside from the neurotic issue of translation, there are the equally vexatious issues of editing, selecting, and ordering a text that until now has defied the global reading public, not to mention the institution of ‘literature’. Things will change. This is quite an event.
I want Ronaldo to read Fernando (Pessoa/The Book of Disquiet/Bernardo Soares) to me in Portuguese. What would that be like? We could even take breaks to walk the streets of Lisbon, punctuate our reading experience with pastel de nata and a snifter or two of port. I am fascinated by the collision of worlds: a career devoted to the exercise and perfection of the body against Soares’s solitary, internal, repressed world. The collision of the resplendent athlete of contemporary Portugal and the classic image of the Portuguese modernist with his moustache, steel-rimmed spectacles, and black Homburg. The man celebrated for posing in tight Speedos and the man hiding beneath the full-body mask of a funeral director (or book-keeper, the occupation of the text’s narrator). It will never happen, not least because Ronaldo is too busy being Mr Universe.
So yeah: Ronaldo pushed a referee on the eve of the international publication of his compatriot’s arguably most important work: The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition, edited by Jerónimo Pizarro and translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. The ramifications of this publishing event will register beyond the publishing world, but alas not even a drop of recognition from Ronaldo on the subject of Portugal’s translation into the English-speaking world. In any case, he has a sticky situation to sort out…