As Rolf Knie, a former Swiss footballer and the founder of the circus Salto Natale, pointed out in an interview with FIFA.com earlier this month, football and the circus have plenty of things in common. “They both offer a spectacle,” he said. “They both spread happiness and bring together people of different religions, skin colours and social classes.”
Football and the circus also need their entertainers, the men who delight the crowds with their tricks and antics. Yet, as FIFA.com explains, football players do not need make-up, a big red nose and over-size shoes to have the fans in stitches. As well as being wonderfully gifted, larger-than-life characters such as Franck Ribery, Sepp Maier and the legendary Ernst Happel have all shown over the years that football provides a perfect stage for clowning around.
Best’s jokes and Totti’s tales
Some of the game’s greatest entertainers only had to open their mouths to get the fans laughing. Few players had sharper repartee than the Northern Irish wizard George Best. The late Manchester United star acquired a reputation for coming out with hilarious one-liners, among them this oft-quoted observation: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Best is not the only footballing personality with a nice line in quips, as Chile coach Orlando Aravena showed at a press conference during the 1989 Copa America. Asked how his team would play in their upcoming match against Argentina, Aravena cheekily replied: “In red shirts, blue shorts and white socks”.
Roma’s Francesco Totti is equally quick to come up with a joke. Responding to a journalist uttering the words “Carpe Diem” to him, the Italian playmaker said: “I don’t speak English”. In fact Il Pupone likes silly jokes so much, he has compiled his very own book of amusing stories, which also devotes space to his numerous pranks and capers in front of the camera.
Among the sport’s many practical jokers is Franck Ribery, who has come up with a string of visual gags since arriving at Bayern Munich. After helping his side beat Borussia Dortmund to lift the 2008 German Cup, the Frenchman pretended to steal the trophy, much to the amusement of the fans gathered at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
Just a few weeks later he had journalists in fits of laughter after tipping two buckets of water over the head of team-mate Oliver Khan at the end of a training session. And for his pièce de resistance the man dubbed Kaiser Franck commandeered the team bus one day, only to lose control and crash. Fortunately, no one was injured in the bump, though his team-mates did have a good laugh at his expense.
Showmen and acrobats
A former drama student, Ribery’s national team coach Raymond Domenech chose April Fool’s Day in 2008 to display his gift for humour. With three months still to go before UEFA EURO 2008, he announced on the internet that his side would not be taking part. “The season is too busy and my team just won’t be competitive,” he joked.
Staying in France, Rennes goalkeeper Marcel Aubour took advantage of a break in play during the 1971 French Cup final against Lyon to collect artichokes thrown on to the pitch by his side’s discontented fans and play pétanque with them against the base of the posts.
The party tricks and showmanship of its great entertainers are an essential part of the game. Ernst Happel, widely regarded as one of the finest footballers of all time, liked nothing better than to sit on the ball right in the middle of a game. “People love fantasy and the fans want to see a show,” he said in an interview just a few months before his death. “Football is only a game, and after all and you have to provide entertainment.”
That also seems to have been the belief of Russia’s former flying winger Andrei Kanchelskis, who would sometimes stand on the ball during games to make himself taller and shield his eyes with his hand, like a sailor searching for dry land.
Tumbling Icelandic women’s footballer Arna Arnadottir made a name for herself and got a few extra yards on her throw-ins by performing a forward roll during her run-ups, while celebrated Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita furthered his reputation for the unexpected by executing an incredible goal-line clearance in a friendly against England in September 1995 that became known as the scorpion kick.
“To make the clearance, the keeper jumps forward, puts their hands on the ground, lifts their feet in the air and kicks the ball away,” said the irrepressible gloveman, explaining his unique technique.
No circus show is complete without an appearance from our four-legged friends, who have also made their mark on football. Just ask Sepp Maier, the man between the posts during West Germany’s victorious campaign at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Famous for his leaping saves, the giant shotstopper is also remembered for his hilarious attempts to catch a duck that had wandered onto the pitch during a game he was playing in.
Well known for his deadly finishing, Brazilian fox-in-the-box Viola was another animal lover. Corinthians fans, for example, have happy memories of the goal he scored against Palmeiras in the final of the 1993 Sao Paulo state championship, not least because he celebrated the decisive strike by imitating a pig.
Our look at the clowns of world football would not be complete without a stop in England, home to countless zany footballing jesters. Chris Waddle, for example, brought joy to many with his impossibly mazy dribbling, while the numerous japes of the inimitable Paul Gascoigne and the sight of Alan Shearer brandishing a yellow card at a bemused referee are the stuff of legend in the game’s birthplace.
So let’s hear it for football’s clowns, jokers and entertainers, the men and women who bring a smile to the faces of fans all over the world.