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Campbell’s move to Newcastle disappointes me July 27, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer.
Tags: , ,

As I think I’ve said before, perhaps not in so many words, I have a great deal of affection for Sol Campbell.

For one, the man and his family have suffered for the homophobia surrounding soccer, by all reliable accounts without even a basis in fact. That is the salient reason for my admiration as a human being. Soccer fans, though, are soccer fans first and human being second, and by that reasoning, my admiration roots itself in a much deeper reason.

Soccer’s reflexive tribalism is the reason I love the sport, deep down, because it is an antidote to the sterility of professional sports in my own country. Simultaneously, it’s also profoundly myopic in its denial of the extent to which the sport’s commercialization, especially in Great Britain, has divorced it from the communities that spawned it. That’s why I laud the bravery of Campbell’s move from Tottenham to Arsenal, and what it has subsequently subjected him to.

There’s also, even more fundamentally, as detailed in the first article I cited, an on-field reason: Campbell battles every day his own personal physical degradation, and that is as compelling a story as any in the sport.

Let’s remember, for a second, that Campbell was once perhaps the best player in the world at doing what he ostensibly does: presenting an insurmountable physique as an obstacle to opposing attackers. In an Arsenal team trading in ascetic deftness, he was the physical bedrock of that approach. He couldn’t pass, really, or even run, but his team needed a man like that to weave its magic. But that physique was so effective because it was wielded with a defensive intelligence that made it sublime, a brain that understood its limitations and could wield the instrument of Campbell’s body in a way that disguised them.

Since he came back up to the English top division with Arsenal last season, Campbell’s story has been one of that indomitable’s instrument’s decay and that admirable intelligence’s struggles to come to terms with it.

Campbell’s critics must remember that Arsenal owed him, for precisely his braveness in moving to the club in the first place, the chance to surmount those difficulties at the highest level. But one can excuse their dispensing with him now, having given him that chance, and shown that, if more limited than ever, he can function in a top-class team.

But seeing him go to Newcastle, as the Guardian reports he will, is disheartening. I don’t want to see Campbell submerged amid the chaos of that club. Newcastle’s defensive fallibility is institutional, I think. How else would you explain the phenomenon that even Titus Bramble has become a sought-after center half since leaving Newcastle? It is so easy, though, to foresee the man who will soon be the senior citizen of that club’s defense blamed for its inevitable frailties.

If such accusations don’t arise, it will be much to Campbell’s credit. At this late stage in his career, though, at which he can no longer disguise the ever-growing limitations of his game, he is coming up to his biggest challenge.



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