Ian Herbert: Behind the Parisian glitter, David Beckham may really fear the floodlights failing
The debate is how long to put your powers to the test
The Bentley pulled into the car park a good 20 minutes late on Monday lunchtime and there was a time, when the whole world wanted a piece of him, that we would have been lucky to see its driver at all. This time, it was just a minor domestic commitment which had sent Ricky Hatton's timetable adrift and after he had walked past the table of sausage rolls and curly sandwiches, completed his scheduled appearance and finally got down to talking, you could not fail to be hit by the crater-sized hole in the diminished life of a man who held sport in his grip and will not do again.
It's a cynical business which preoccupies us in this section of the newspaper and there's been no lack of that where the arrival in Paris of David Beckham is concerned. Depending on your grade of scepticism, he's a clothes horse for shirts, a piece of brand equity or simply un people to quote the weird new franglais for "celebrity". But while it's a long way from the Parc des Princes to Hatton's fitness centre, just beyond the top traffic lights in the Market Street in Hyde, it was hard, so soon after hearing Hatton out, not to wonder if a little piece of Beckham just wants to stop the floodlights failing for a little while longer.
The Hatton conversation actually turned out to be a decent piece of newspaper property: Ricky talking for the first time since his Vyacheslav Senchenko fight about how life's gone on and yes, since you might ask, he says that he's fine, feels like he has conquered his depression, is about to be a father for the third time. "I'm content. There's nothing more I want to achieve." At least, those are the words in my notebook. It's the look in a man's eyes that you can't write down, when he's perched on the side of a ring in front of you, surrounded by the framed bills, nailed to the walls, which tell the story of the nights and the fights that will never come back. Ricky v Kostya Tszyu in Manchester – the first proper world title fight and his one crowning glory; Ricky v Floyd Mayweather; Ricky v Manny Pacquiao, that box office sensation which promised to catapult Hatton into the big-money league and instead plunged him into a depression as vicious as the Filipino's knockout punch. "Life slows down now. Yes, it's all about making a family," Hatton told me, nodding his head a little too vigorously.
The story of the player or fighter coming to terms with the end is one of the most enduring and it's hard not to pry. Only those who have taken the step into what lies beyond can really tell it. It's fully 20 years since Bob Latchford described it to me in a way that still resonates. "There's nothing to prepare you," he said. "The empty hours, the Saturday lunchtimes destroying you. All you can do is try to think ahead to how you'll fill the days and how you'll move on, but you're fooling yourself. In some ways what you've lost is the simplicity of life and the routines."
At the time, David Bairstow had just taken his own life, seven years after his retirement from a way of cricket life which was perhaps irreplaceable for him.
The story of Darren Eadie, told in this newspaper by fellow pro James Scowcroft, was the most compelling football chronicle of last year for my money, only adding weight to the notion that there are two tragedies in life: the one of failing to meet your goals, and the other of succeeding. You run a pub, you do the after-dinner circuit, but even for those who continue to flourish, as Beckham surely will, a light goes out. The crater was so big for Eadie that he would go into Norwich, walk around seeing others so happy and feel so demolished that the panic attacks stopped him even driving home.
The debate is how long to put your powers to the test. You felt Beckham protested a bit too much on Thursday when he insisted that "I can run around and play just like I was a 21-year-old" and insisted that he had not lost pace "because I was never a player who had much pace". He may actually play no more than five games for his new employers, with the Reims, Rennes and Montpelliers of Ligue 1 probably the target, though his old friend Gary Neville can tell him the story of half-time in the dressing -room toilet at The Hawthorns on New Year's Day last year after he'd just spent 45 minutes making "Jerome Thomas look like Ronaldo," in the words of his immensely fine biography. He never played again.
"The essence of sport is that while you're doing it nothing else matters but after you stop there is a place, generally not very important, where you put it," Sir Roger Bannister once said. And that is because the brand equity can never hold a torch to the turf and the floodlights. Once you have stepped from the ring, there is nothing but a life on the outside of the ropes, telling the world that you're fine.
It's the mental question that tells on Balotelli
Not the last word on Mario Balotelli, because God knows there will be more, but when the moral outrage about his conduct is spent, a tantalising question lingers about whether he possesses the mental faculty required to save himself. It is one which grows ever more unfathomable.
One of the latter strategies employed in desperation by his Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, involved sitting Balotelli down and telling him about the wasted career of Adriano Leite Ribeiro, the Brazilian striker whom he managed briefly at Internazionale, as his career spiralled into chaos caused by alcohol, partying and indiscipline. Adriano, like Balotelli, also promised great things, scoring heavily for Inter in the years before Mancini's arrival. Mancio (as the Italians call him) arrived, took one look, and loaned Adriano to Sao Paulo, at which point his career was extinguished. Privately, Mancini will tell you that this individual, more recently seeing out his time at Flamengo, is a more appropriate point of comparison than Paul Gascoigne.
But there is evidence that Balotelli was capable of self-analysis which renders neither comparison entirely appropriate. It dates to the summer of 2010 when, after City's European scout Barry Hunter had trailed half way around Italy watching Balotelli, the club sent a delegation to meet the striker and his agent, Mino Raiola. While Raiola and Mancini hammered things out between themselves, Balotelli was told that the club had put together a detailed dossier on him, as on all players. "You know we have a dossier? Physical, technical, psychological," he was told. "Dossier?" he replied. "What does the 'psychological' say?" He knew. And, despite the efforts at every level of the club to put him on a path to redemption, he could do nothing about it.
Who volunteers to fork out a £75 fee?
The Ryder Cup has mounted an indignant defence of its decision to charge a £75 "registration fee" for volunteers at Gleneagles in 2014, not least that Wales did it in 2010. But the opportunity to recapture a modicum of that late lamented Olympic nirvana has gone. Human nature tells us that it's harder to wave big pointy hands around so gleefully when you're paying for the privilege. The true volunteer spirit promotes a country and a sport in a way that a tournament cannot – and that has been passed up in Scotland's Commonwealth Games year. Sport really surpasses itself at times.
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