Witnessing Nemanja Vidić put his head where others were scared to put their feet for eight years running wasn’t a doctored image that defined him as a player. The Serb, indeed, was a lionhearted center-half who always looked within himself for a leader first, and shone under the bright lights.
Not many are cut from the same cloth as “Vida,” yet similar platitudes are afforded to said players on the sole power of optics.
A game of opposites
Turn the clocks back to last season just for the sake of assessing the contrast in the discourse around Gabriel Magalhães and Ben White as an example.
The former is one who typifies the leader profile of a central defender—vocal, aggressive, and all-action. As a result, it was unsurprising to see the Brazilian hailed as Arsenal’s best center-back, as he fits the age-old clichés that define the archetypal brawny defender.
Ben White, on the other end of the spectrum, went about his business quietly, and his understated ways meant several onlookers felt way too comfortable while underrating him.
Add the Englishman’s grim debut for the Gunners up against Ivan Toney, in which he was essentially physically bullied. He was borderline typecasted as exactly the kind of meek defender that is an accident waiting to happen.
Center-backs that are second in command are often on the receiving end of such baseless assessments, as their habit of nodding along to the leader’s orders weds their reputations to an undertone of fragility.
Furthermore, there is almost a sense that the dominant defender has to hold his fellow center-half’s hand, as the latter is expected to inevitably self-destruct when left on his own terms at some point.
White, much like several other defenders that profile like him, tends to boast of a superior all-round game in comparison to their more boisterous partners in crime.
Names such as Gerard Piqué and John Stones instantly spring to mind, when stacking their complete packages in contrast to the likes of Carles Puyol and Rúben Dias.
And yet, the skepticism around the former Brighton defender’s minerals was palpable throughout the course of the previous term, while it was popular opinion that Magalhães was the protagonist of that Arsenal backline.
To the untrained eye swayed by such optics, witnessing the latter’s unbridled aggression translate into pure impulsiveness in the 2022/2023 campaign—which has been the key ingredient in his fall from grace—has been a shock to the system.
The same can be said for far too many skeptics that have taken a humbling as the England international’s zen-like composure, taken as feebleness, has allowed him to effortlessly operate as a seasoned right-back this season.
Judging a player by his… body language?
Another aggressively unfounded conversation dictated by optics is gauging a player’s commitment to the cause based on his external reactions in a game. Especially during a defeat, supporters clamor for their players to bark orders at each other and look dissatisfied when times are tough.
The natural course of action for any layman is to pose the question of why footballers should be expected to be performative during crisis situations just to appease the fans.
Not many players have been victimized by the press for appearing unbothered about the situation their team finds themselves in. But Anthony Martial, during his time at Manchester United, has. The basis? Yes, his body language of all things on God’s green Earth.
Let’s put it this way: there’s more of a chance of making “fetch” happen than the Frenchman cracking a smile after getting on the scoresheet. Keeping that in mind, to expect the former Monaco wonderkid to rally his troops and throw his arms up in the air during a crisis is demanding he act out of character.
And yet, Martial has been brandished as lazy and indifferent to the struggles that have haunted Old Trafford since his arrival in 2015.
After years of having his character assassinated, the versatile forward backed his corner, and rightfully so, while saying it as it is in conversation with France Football.
“Basically, I have to display my disappointment after a missed opportunity so people say: ‘Ah, he doesn’t really care.’ I’ll tell you simply: I’m a footballer, not an actor.
A lot of people think you have to be a comedian, and I see players who show their rage so that the public and the media think they are motivated.”
Faking it or by the book?
And since we’re on the topic of players whose public perceptions have been skewed by sheer optics, is there a more appropriate example than Neymar?
The Brazilian icon has been reduced to a mere diva by many, solely due to his reputation of going to the ground too easily.
While there is no denying that the Paris Saint-Germain legend can be guilty of simulation at times, being one of the greatest dribblers of all time comes with the territory of constantly being fouled.
For the most part, the Champions League winner takes the hit, gets back to his feet, and resumes running rings around defenders.
The World Cup remains football’s grandest stage, and witnessing a half-fit Neymar wilt in pain on the floor more often than making a mockery out of the opposition in 2018, somehow cemented his reputation as just the average prima donna footballer.
Whilst condoning simulation is always advisable, the average fan that is up in arms tends to discount the sheer pace at which elite dribblers such as the former Barcelona hero carry the ball. When stopped in their tracks, said ball-carrier comes to the ground like a pack of cards.
Or, as is common knowledge, professional footballers are taught how to fall to the floor after being fouled to avoid serious injuries, and Neymar is merely adhering to the rulebook.
At the end of the day, the fact that one of the beautiful game’s greatest ever entertainers is scoffed at by millions due to this misconstrued idea that exists about his persona is why optics should be put aside in discourse of any kind regarding the sport.
While the eye test dictates a crux of how footballers are perceived, going as far as to clutch at baseless straws to set the narrative is always in poor taste.