The Search for the Unstable Element

Every successful team needs an Unstable Element. Whether it’s Roy Keane policing his team-mates, or Sergio Ramos indulging in the dark arts, they are an indispensable part of a team’s pursuit of glory, writes Musa Okwonga.

When building an elite football team, every manager must ensure that their squad of players has a crucial and elusive quality: great chemistry. If each manager is therefore a scientist, patiently assembling a blend of chemicals, then he or she must be on the lookout for one vital ingredient: the unstable element. Somewhere in that group of athletes, there must be someone whose approach to the sport is obsessive to the point of combustion, and sometimes far beyond. That’s the paradox of football: it’s only a game, but you’ll only win if you treat it as if it is something much more than that. 

Football isn’t short of comparisons to combat: at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, prior to Argentina’s second-round match against France, their coach Jorge Sampaoli said that they would “go out with a knife between their teeth”. Sampaoli’s words were clearly stirring - Argentina were the only team to lead France in the entire tournament - but the most motivated players have never needed such encouragement. One of his most distinguished performers, Javier Mascherano, has long played the game with a terrifying intensity, which has endlessly urged his team-mates to do the same. 

Roy Keane, Gennaro Gattuso, Diego Costa and Sergio Ramos - all not very stable.

In chemistry, the unstable element is notable for its volatility; it decays at a rate much faster than its calmer colleagues in the periodic table. In football, that decay often manifests itself in the form of both yellow and red cards, and even training-ground brawls. The unstable element isn’t always the easiest individual to be around, and is frequently seen berating his or her own players for missed chances and misplaced passes. They are the type of co-worker you might curse when their back is turned, or complain about at the dinner table that evening. Yet if you’re asked to name the player who, after you went a goal down, drove you forwards to victory, then that name will belong to them.

Witness, for example, Carles Puyol, who once saw two of his team-mates engaging in what he saw as too flamboyant a goal celebration and so went over and broke it up. Or Roy Keane, who urged his team to success on many an occasion, most notably the semi-final of the 1999 UEFA Champions League against Juventus. Or Sergio Ramos, the high priest of footballing havoc, and the scorer of several late and essential goals for Real Madrid. From the Sunday League to the Premier League, every team needs such a personality: someone who, if they were to encounter them at the end of a belligerent Saturday night, they would most likely loathe.

From the Sunday League to the Premier League, every team needs such a personality: someone who, if they were to encounter them at the end of a belligerent Saturday night, they would most likely loathe.

Why are such players necessary? Because a key part of being a great team is continually renewing its desire, and that’s a highly challenging process. The reason why so few sides manage to maintain their winning streaks is that, well, endless success gets boring. Look, for example, at how few bands manage to improve upon their early albums, whose intensity and willingness to be heard soars forth from every track. That is understandable: the common human reaction to improved material circumstances is to enjoy the comfort of one’s new surroundings. It isn’t normal, once enjoying the trappings of the multimillionaire, to compete with the same vigour as the kid who fears being dropped from the youth team because he’s too small. 

When building an elite team, then, a manager must look not for players who are supremely confident but who, at their core, are just a little insecure. They must always have an air of dissatisfaction about them, a countless number of scores they still have to settle. Michael Jordan, when giving a speech to accept his place in basketball’s Hall of Fame, didn’t deliver an address of grace and magnanimity but instead one where he mocked all of those who had ever doubted his talent. In doing so, he peeled away the veil we normally see on such occasions, and allowed us a true look at the grim, relentless nature of the championship athlete. 

That’s why football’s unstable elements are vital; each training session, each match, they hold up a mirror to their team-mates, reminding them how desire should look. In a game whose elite reaches have lost much of their rougher edges, sandblasted away by innumerable piles of cash, the unstable elements remain more important than ever; they represent football’s nerve endings, they are its very heart.

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.