Georginio Wijnaldum and the Collective Toxic

No one can compare themselves to Simone Biles, but Wijnaldum’s exit from Liverpool carried many of the same themes.


By Rory Smith

This is not a comparison, because there is no comparison. Nobody, really, can understand what it is like to be Simone Biles. There have, of course, been athletes burdened with the same sort of level of superhuman expectation, their personhood erased in the transcendence to icon, turned into the face of a sport or an avatar for a generation or a standard-bearer for a nation, but they number barely a handful.

And none of them have been in Biles’s precise circumstances. None of them — not Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan or Lionel Messi or whoever — know what it is like to be Simone Biles, at her age, in her mind, with her talent, at her level, in her sport, with her background, in this moment and this culture, with all of those things combined.

Nobody else has been through what she has been through. Nobody else is qualified to tell her what path to take, because nobody has ever taken that path. Her experience has been unique; it is hers and hers alone. There is a glory in that, but there is also, perhaps, a shadow of bleakness.

Georginio Wijnaldum cannot be (and, remember, is not being) compared to Biles. He is an elite athlete, too, of course. He will know — certainly more than most of us — a little of the sacrifices she has had to make and the demands she has had to meet and the devotion she has had to show to reach the pinnacle of her sport.

But there is, of course, no comparison at all. Wijnaldum is a fine midfielder, a Premier League and Champions League winner and a sometime captain of his country, but it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest he has redefined soccer itself, or conjured a whole new vision of the sport from his own imagination, or redrawn the boundaries of what we think is possible.

He has never had to endure the pressure of competing in an individual sport, or one that is entirely reliant on his own individual performance. If Wijnaldum made a mistake, a teammate might be there to bail him out, or he might get a chance to rectify it a few minutes later, or make up for it the following week.

Biles has none of those safety nets. Even the slightest misstep might mean the difference between gold and silver, gold and nowhere, for her and her teammates. There is no second half, no return fixture, no long slog of a league season. There is only, every four years, perfection or failure, here and now.

Biles and Wijnaldum are not alike. There is no comparison. But, for one fleeting moment, it may be worth considering their stories in conjunction.

This week, as you will have noticed, Biles withdrew (as of this writing) from two of her Olympic finals. She did so, she said, to prioritize her mental health. She had been feeling, as she had alluded to on Instagram, as though she had “the weight of the world on her shoulders” at times.

“This Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” she said. “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

In the general tumult of the Olympics, it would have been easy to miss Wijnaldum’s intervention. This summer, he left Liverpool for Paris St.-Germain. His contract had expired; conversations with the club’s ownership had foundered for several months, the two parties unable to find common ground over how much, and for how long, a player of his age should be paid. His last appearance for his former team, at Anfield in May, was very clearly a goodbye: there was a guard of honor, and a special presentation.

This week, Wijnaldum attempted to provide a little bit of context as to why he had left a team he had said publicly he would have been happy to remain at for years to come. He seemed to suggest that ownership did not “love” or “appreciate” him as much as it might have done. But he also mentioned the role played by social media.

“On social media, if we lost, I was the one who got the blame,” he said. He felt it was heightened during his contract standoff — “when it went bad, I was the player they blamed, that I wanted to leave” — and never spread to fans in the stadium, but he acknowledged that its roots were deeper. “Basically in the last two seasons I had it a few times,” he said.

The reaction was, broadly, dismissive: it was assumed that Wijnaldum was either making excuses, or engaging in a little light, perfectly healthy whataboutery to make a decision that was, likely, far more practical (he wanted a longer contract than Liverpool was prepared to offer, and therefore he left) seem more palatable.

And yet, in the context of Biles, it is worth taking Wijnaldum at his word. For all the differences between their situations, their worlds, though, their stories echo — however dimly — each other.

Athletes of all stripes exist and perform under pressure: from themselves, from their coaches, from their teams and their teammates, from their fans, from their sponsors. That has always been the case; they become adept, far more so than most of us could countenance, at both functioning and thriving in that environment.

What has changed, now, is the scale of that pressure: not just its height, but its breadth. Biles came into Tokyo as the designated “face of the Games,” the star of the United States team, the greatest gymnast in history. NBC’s promotional material for the Olympics ran that, to her, “certain laws do not apply, like gravity.”

It would be easy — and not inaccurate — to point the finger of blame at the news media for indulging in that sort of hype, for placing that much expectation on a 24-year-old woman, for exposing her to an intolerable level of pressure. It would be no less valid to suggest that the news media had a role to play in turning Wijnaldum’s contract dispute into a source of consternation among some sections of Liverpool’s support.

But to do so would be to ignore a change in the media landscape that, in almost every other context, has been determined to be wholesale and revolutionary. Wijnaldum was keen to stress that there was a difference between how he was treated online and in person; the former turned on him far more quickly, far more vociferously, than the latter ever did.

Wijnaldum is not an athlete on the same level as Biles. His journey is not parallel to hers, in a million different ways. Their experiences are wildly different. But like her, his career is played out on social media: his every performance scrutinized and dissected, his every shortcoming highlighted, his every failure pounced upon. He is told what is expected, and he is told, rightly or wrongly, when he does not live up to it.

It is easy, when discussing an athlete on social media, to assume that they do not hear: that their feeds are managed by agencies — “post something like” — or to believe, in some way, that the spoils of their success, either the money or the fame, inure them to basic human emotion.

But they do hear, and they do see, and they do feel. Those insults cut through. Those demands are noticed. Those expectations — not of the sponsors or the coaches or the journalists alone, but of all of us — have a weight. How much that played a role in Biles’ need to take some time and space only she will know, and she is under no compunction to share, but the swirling maelstrom in which she is expected to live her life does not exert some influence. If Wijnaldum is aware of it, it is hard to believe Biles is not.

There has, in the days that followed Biles’ initial decision to withdraw, been what she has described as an “outpouring” of support. Her example will, hopefully, make it easier not only for athletes to discuss their mental well-being, but to know where to draw their own lines.

But they are not the only ones who need to heed her lesson. They are not the only ones who need to think about the mental health of the stars we have made, the icons we have cast. It is for all of us, too, to remember that pressure does not just come from within. It is exerted, too, all those thousands of comments building their own gravity, their own force, one that is felt by the good and the great alike.

Trading Up

David Alaba can do pretty much everything. He has, for some time, been one of the world’s finest left backs. In his last couple of seasons at Bayern Munich, he has emerged as one of the best central defenders on the planet, too. That’s some going, given that he would also get a game in midfield for pretty much every team in Europe.

All of which will come in useful at Real Madrid, where the current plan appears to be to ask the 29-year-old to play in all three positions simultaneously.

That is not quite fair. Real has two left backs, in Ferland Mendy and Marcelo, though the latter is in the (late) autumn of his (illustrious) career. It has a midfield — Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos — that is not so much settled as petrified. Alaba would be helpful in both roles, but it is in central defense that the need is greatest, so it is in central defense that he must play.

It is a crisis of Real’s own making. First, it forgot to tell Sergio Ramos its contract offer had a best-before date, resulting in him joining Paris St.-Germain on a free transfer. And then this week, it agreed to sell Raphael Varane to Manchester United for $60 million. That pair has been Madrid’s bedrock for a decade. In their absence, Alaba is going to have his work cut out.

Quite what lies behind Real’s thinking is difficult to parse — though the only cogent logic is that it is financial — but, either way, it is hard to make the case that the team will be stronger this season than it was last. Barcelona is only in slightly better shape, and that is presuming that Lionel Messi does, in fact, sign a new contract, and the club finds some way to register its four new signings without contravening La Liga’s rules.

All of which suggests that, for the first time since the turn of the century, there is a genuine power vacuum at the top of La Liga. Atlético Madrid, the reigning champion, should have a chance to retain its title. And Sevilla, for so long the best of Spain’s rest, may finally scent a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

It has had to trade this summer, too, as it does every year: selling the winger Bryan Gil to Tottenham and — though the deal is not yet complete — the defender Jules Koundé to Chelsea. Koundé, in particular, would be a loss: a player of prodigious talent and stratospheric ceiling.

But that is more than offset by what Sevilla has been able to wrangle in return. From Spurs, the club elicited not only $24 million, but the playmaker Erik Lamela. Chelsea is, reportedly, prepared to offer cash and the France defender Kurt Zouma to get its hands on Koundé.

Neither will be mourned, particularly, by fans of their previous teams. Both have long since faded in English eyes. But to Sevilla, they represent a class of player the club cannot usually attract. Lamela, plagued by injury, managed 35 games for Spurs last season; Zouma featured 36 times for Chelsea.

These are not high-risk, high-reward gambles. They are not hidden gems being asked to step up a level. They are seasoned professionals, able to command regular game-time at one of Europe’s biggest teams — and Spurs — and who can be expected to slot straight in to Julen Lopetegui’s side.

They will join a squad that already contains Diego Carlos, Papu Gómez, Lucas Ocampos and Ivan Rakitic. For years, victory for Sevilla has been reinventing itself every summer, searching for the next big thing to sell. Now, for the first time in a long time, its team has a very different profile: one built, it would seem, not with an eye on tomorrow but with all of its focus on today.

Correspondence

Good news for those readers who feel this newsletter does not scratch their Major League Soccer itch: you are not alone. Far from it, in fact.

William Ireland goes out to bat for Liga MX — “the best North American League, and one of the ten or twelve best leagues in the world” — while Steve Iskra nominates Australia’s A-League. “This is the league that produced the young players that beat Argentina in Tokyo,” he wrote.

Joe Klonowski would like to see more on the N.W.S.L., while Ian Roberts completes the acronym soup by throwing the U.S.L. into the mix. “A league of passion among the players and fans, instead of a league bringing in players who are well past their sell by date,” he wrote. And Fernando Gama brings up the Copa Libertadores, now bubbling up nicely as it reaches the quarterfinal stage.

I would like to thank all of you for your suggestions, and assure you that they have been taken on board. Bear with me, though. I don’t think The Times will allow me to hire staff to help spread the burden.

Fernando’s email provided especially good value this week, because he touched on the issue of (men’s) soccer at the Olympics, too. “The games are typically played in August, when the season is starting, so nobody wants to release their players,” he wrote. “And FIFA does not control the Olympics, and cannot profit from it, so doesn’t feel compelled to enter into a rift with clubs over it.”

These are both salient points, highlighted by the reminder from Peter Zwickl that Germany only sent 18 players to Tokyo. “Several players or clubs, of a list of 100 candidates, rejected the invitation by the German coach,” he wrote, which just about encapsulates Olympic soccer’s problem.

But let’s leave on a more upbeat note from Rey Mashayekhi. “Five years ago, at the Rio Games, Brazil’s defeat of Germany in the Gold Medal match was a hugely significant, cathartic experience for all invested in the Seleçao, coming as it did two years after the horrors of Belo Horizonte in the 2014 World Cup semifinal.

“When Neymar converted Brazil’s fifth and decisive penalty, sunk to his knees and looked to the heavens as the stadium exploded in pandemonium around him, it struck me as a truly great moment with all the emotional release of any triumph in the sport.” There’s a reminder here about one of those easily-forgotten truths in soccer, and in any sport: all of it matters as much as we decide that it matters.

That’s all for this week. If you would like to vouch for why I should cover Lithuanian soccer or games in Kyrgyzstan (or anything else, for that matter): [email protected] Twitter might work, too. And if it doesn’t become a newsletter, there’s half a chance it will end up as a Set Piece Menu episode. There is, after all, only so much content.

Have a great weekend,

Rory

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