Chris McGrath: Football's pretty boys know that charm can heal the ugliest rifts

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

They call it the beautiful game for a reason, you know.

When introducing the new Fulham manager, Mohamed al-Fayed declared that Mark Hughes was "much better-looking" than his predecessor. A frivolous remark, no doubt – but it might well have prompted dark suspicions in Hughes himself about the way he had been replaced in his previous job at Manchester City.

Roberto Mancini has started a momentous new season at City with a smart new haircut. Gone is that foppish mane. Maybe he intends a contrast to the club's extravagance, to show that he has the austerity to keep a lid on all those simmering egos. It suits him, though. He's a handsome fellow, Mancini – which makes it a pity he's liable to end up looking like Pierluigi Collina's grandfather by Christmas.

Now it could just be a coincidence. But the fact is that the most seismic takeovers in Premier League history were both completed, for the sort of players sought by Chelsea and now Manchester City, by the arrival of managers with every pretext to slow down whenever they pass a mirror.

I'm not suggesting Jose Mourinho and Mancini were hired on some subconscious, homoerotic impulse in their patrons. It's just that some of the most admired men in the world game owe at least a fraction of their glamour to physical charisma.

Don't take my word for it, though. How else do you account for the fact that City fans are prepared to be seen in public wearing their scarves in the same, irreducibly effeminate style as Mancini? If this, his trademark affectation, hints at a certain self-regard, then you can hardly blame the man. His compatriot, Antonio Cassano, is able to brag about hundreds of women who have overlooked a scrofulous complexion, sagging girth and epic conceit for the honour of sharing his bed. (Cassano bribes the bellhop first to smuggle a woman into his room; afterwards, a tray of pastries.) So a little vanity is pardonable in anyone who combines a far more productive career with the studied dignity and dashing looks that unite so many Italian icons, in particular.

Those of us infatuated by their skills on the field cannot sensibly pretend indifference to, say, the smouldering eyes of Roberto Baggio or Paolo Maldini. We can, for instance, be jealous. (In fact, one of the most persuasive arguments for the existence of God is the appalling decline in Maldini apparently guaranteed by the example of his father, Cesare.) Or we can simply be grateful for their ability to command sudden, rapt attention from those who otherwise resent football as a pestilent intrusion on domestic harmony.

It is difficult, admittedly, to suggest many parallels here in the north of Europe. Good grief, when Harry Redknapp stood on the same touchline as Mancini last Saturday the poor bloke was made to look like a forgotten soufflé. Nothing, equally, will ever liberate Wayne Rooney from the pug-faced, hooded kid riding a bike round some Merseyside waste lot.

The one English footballer who has long traded on his looks is David Beckham. And something, certainly, has to account for the shrill outrage over Fabio Capello's failure to grasp that the end of Beckham's international career ranks somewhere between Magna Carta and Dunkirk in the chronicles of our nation.

Beckham, of course, could never beat a full-back without a rolling pin in his hand, but that was not his sole qualification for his recent sojourns in Serie A. Where else, for instance, could the soulful Gabriel Batistuta have been properly adored? Even some of the Italian league's paltriest intellects, protected by the barriers of language, can strike us as god-like. They have to betray their idiocy in other ways, for instance in the hilariously homicidal tackle perpetrated on Mario Balotelli last season. Its author was sent off, but it was unmistakably one of the most popular things he has ever done. Which just goes to show how people will indulge anything in a proper bit of Totti.

Balotelli, of course, has now followed Mancini to Manchester. The fact that not even Mourinho could handle him suggests that Balotelli is immune to the cult of a dishy manager. On the other hand, this might yet prove the project that allows Mancini to show everyone that he is not just a pretty face.

Anderlecht vs Belgrade – now that was the game to watch

If you didn't catch it during the week, you really must seek out what surely sets an insuperable standard as Own Goal of the Season in the Champions League 2-2 qualifier between Anderlecht and Partizan Belgrade in Serbia. The Belgian side's Jan Lecjaks, timing his run into the box to perfection, smeared a half-volley into the top corner with such exuberance that the apparent modesty of his celebrations at first seemed quite perplexing.

It was an even better goal than Werder Bremen managed in their 3-1 defeat of Sampdoria, which is saying something. Clemens Fritz's 25-yarder would have sent a trawler into reverse, and then there was a lethally intuitive back-heel from Hugo Almeida to put Claudio Pizarro through. This was an impressive shrug of the shoulders, following Mesut Ozil's exit to Madrid.

Spurs must have been glad that the qualifying round's most obvious banana skins ended up playing each other. Bremen's other goal, however, had a more ominous significance. Because if Champions League referees will award penalties for the limp tug of the shirt that earned a second yellow card for a Sampdoria defender, marking up for a corner, the British challenge could founder on less marginal considerations than a plastic pitch.

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