Despite playing at the highest level, some elite players would look equally at home on a muddy pitch in an amateur league. Musa Okwonga introduces his Sunday League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Images by Ryu Voelkel.
As soon as Atletico Madrid were drawn to face Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, the prospect of this contest filled many with a unique glee. Put simply: it promises to be the world’s most prestigious Sunday League match. There is a very special brand of world-class footballer who, though they are utterly comfortable playing in the Santiago Bernabéu, look as if they would be equally happy on a muddy pitch in an amateur league.
These players typically have a certain ruggedness about them, a visible resilience; unlike those deceptively slim midfielders who can still give and take a fearsome kicking, the sight of these characters on a Sunday morning would likely induce a shudder in the opposition. Atletico Madrid against Juventus will feature a great many such individuals.
So inspiring is the thought of this tie that, as a tribute it feels fitting to compose an eleven of world-class players, drawn from teams other than Atlético Madrid and Juventus, who could handle themselves just fine on the roughest pitches on this Earth. Below you will find this team: we can call it ‘The Sunday League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’.
Coach: Mauricio Pochettino
As the saying goes, he is a man who would not start a barfight but could very possibly end one. Pochettino is a natural for this role because he is one of the rare managers who looks tougher than every single one of his own players. He is armed with the three deadliest weapons: a stick of furiously-chewed gum, a pair of firmly-folded arms, and a stare that could scare time to a standstill. Your coach tries making small talk with him before the game, then quickly thinks better of it.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Donnarumma
Just before you take a spot-kick against him he stretches out his arms and legs and they are so long that they almost seem to touch either post. Briefly, you wonder if there should be a height restriction for those who wish to play in goal. He flings one throw out to the left wing and it reaches your half after a single bounce. That day, a couple of members of his family come to watch him play. You realise then that he is descended from giants.
Right-back: Hector Bellerin
Each such team has one player who seems too nice to be hanging out with the rest of them, and with whom you can imagine going for a beer after the game. That’s Bellerin. You’re not quite sure how he ended up with this crowd - when someone on your team is kicked to the ground, Bellerin is often there first, helping him up. Somehow, despite his unusual name and his flamboyant appearance, he is beloved by his far more rugged team-mates. He is one of their most devastating attackers, but you can’t hold that against him.
Centre-back: Javier Mascherano
Just before his team’s second-round match against France, Argentina coach Jorge Sampoli said that his players would go out to play “with a knife between their teeth”. It was a metaphorical reference - probably - but such is Mascherano’s intensity that you almost expected him to take the field carrying a weapon. He is the master of the “shadow foul” - the offence committed before the referee’s eyes which never seems to result in a free-kick, as if he were playing with the aid of a cloaking device.
Centre-back: Virgil van Dijk
A defender so unfeasibly tall that his head has probably attracted the attention of air traffic control. Has thighs the size of bollards. His size suggests he is probably clumsy and slow. A foot race with him five minutes after kick off confirms, heartbreakingly, that he is not. Halfway through the first half, your striker attempts to run through on goal, yet in the face of van Dijk’s approaching combine harvester he is merely a fistful of hay. He is never seen again.
Left-back: Patrice Evra
My God, he won’t stop talking. He made eye contact with you as soon as you took the pitch, and that was when he knew he had you. Like all the most diligent Internet trolls, his task is merely to get you to interact. There he is next to you at one of your team’s corners, whispering in your ear, asking after your friends, your family. Always talking, Jesus Christ. Some of it is insults, some of it is compliments - oh, nice touch, good turn of pace, didn’t know you had that in you - but the point is that it is constant. His team-mates, in what should have been a warning to you, call him Radio. You endure him for a half but shortly after the break he makes one too many quips and so eventually you kick him. His shins are firm as scaffolding yet he has already tumbled away as if he were on a downhill slope. You don’t even wait for the red card to be raised.
Centre-midfield: Radja Nainggolan
As he steps out to face you that morning, his appearance makes you think he was born on a yellow card; that before he could walk, he was probably caught slide-tackling passing toddlers. But then you see him play, and this walking tapestry of tattoos can really, really play. Before you’ve adjusted your view of him from one-dimensional hard man to creative threat, he’s buried you beneath a deluge of crossfield passes. He’s a Trojan Horse footballer, a rapier disguised as a baseball bat.
Centre-midfield: Luka Modrić
That midfielder whose game at first you don’t understand. He doesn’t play long passes, he doesn’t score, he doesn’t provide assists - but each time you come away from an encounter with him, you sense that he has destroyed you. You would understand him better if you were actually able to tackle him, but you spend most of the game pursuing him around the centre-circle with the same success as a cat chasing a laser.
Centre-midfield: Arturo Vidal
Even his team-mates seem intimidated by him, and they spent most of their time incredulously removing him from pointless fights. He wins the bulk of challenges before he makes contact with you, mainly because you are concerned that each such contest will cause the temporary inability to walk. He plays as if trying to avenge some ancient wrong, a warrior-demon.
Wide-forward: Ivan Perišić
He is not so much fast as relentless, a silent voyager up and down the left flank, remorselessly sending over perfect cross after perfect cross. He seems to derive little joy from his assists, a service he provides with the apparent excitement of a man filing his tax return. His brilliance is mechanical, so much so that when he sprints past you expect to hear the frantic whirring of a motor.
Centre-forward: Gareth Bale
Your centre-backs take one look at him and sigh with exhaustion, imagining the torment of the 90 minutes ahead. The biggest concern is that he is wearing short sleeves in sub-zero conditions, a sign of terrifying intent. Close behind that is the sheer scale of him - he has the dimensions of a buffalo. He has the forearms of a blacksmith, and his ankles are so broad that when he sprints he leaves train tracks in the turf. He doesn’t need to use his extensive dribbling skills, since his shooting makes him a threat within forty yards of goal. His first strike, a drive from just outside the box after ten minutes, knocks a flag-sized flake of paint off the crossbar.
Wide-forward: Kylian Mbappé
There’s always one player like this in each Sunday League team: a striker so young his dad could turn out for the same side, and whose feet, clad in shining boots, are never less than a flurry of silver. He’s the one with the most simple and affectionate nickname, Killy, and the most elaborate celebration. He is the baby of the team and when he is fouled his team mates gather immediately at the scene, a cluster of angry wolves.
Centre-forward: Mauro Icardi; Centre-midfield: Yaya Toure; Centre-back: Kolo Toure.
This side, an elite blend of brain and brawn, is sure to overwhelm all-comers on a Sunday morning. Who would be in your dream Sunday League team? Let us know on Twitter at @rabonamag.
Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. Musa also co-presents the Rabona podcast.