What does it mean to be a captain?
Certainly, it varies.
In cricket, for instance, the captain is responsible for key on-field tactical decisions such as bowling changes and field placements. It’s similar in rugby union; the NFL too – team captains have the ability to profoundly alter a game with a tactical call here and a play change there. That’s much less the case in football, largely because of the faster, more organic flow of a game. Pause for thought and tactical adjustment is more difficult, and the role of captain is more one of leadership by example and exhortation than anything else.
Different people approach the captaincy challenge in different ways - David Beckham was a quiet captain who gave 100% and led by example; Michael Vaughan was considered, cerebral and inclusive; John Terry is an up-and-at-‘em type of leader – but the ultimate goal remains the same: to ensure that the whole of the team adds up to more than the sum of its individual parts, and performs to its maximum capability.
No matter what, a captain is always in some way a leader: someone to whom teammates look to for guidance, inspiration and a good example.
Which is where Arsenal’s William Gallas has failed spectacularly, on every count.
Nine months after a display of petulance against Birmingham City – kicking an advertising hoarding and sitting down in a sulk after the concession of a late penalty - behaviour which was shameful from any professional, let alone a captain, Gallas was eventually stripped of the club captaincy.
The final straw was a series of public revelations last week – it is of course entirely coincidental that he is promoting his autobiography – which insinuated the following:
- He thinks it's unfair that, as captain, he is being singled out as the sole cause of Arsenal’s current poor form, and that the media needlessly keep revisiting what happened at Birmingham
- That he had to break up a heated argument in the dressing room at half-time during the recent 4-4 draw with Tottenham.
- During Euro 2008, he had a verbal contretemps with a young French international colleague, to whom he refers as “S”, which suggested they were never likely to become friends – it is widely assumed that S is Arsenal teammate Samir Nasri.
- That there is a younger player at Arsenal who is poisoning the dressing room and who has disrespected him on the field – Gallas didn’t name him but said he was six years younger than him (Gallas is 31) – it is generally assumed he is referring to Robin van Persie, one of only three 25-year olds in the Arsenal squad.
There is an unwritten law in football - indeed, in most team sports – that internal team issues are kept within the dressing room. The current problems at Arsenal are hardly unusual – when things are going badly, a degree of conflict is likely, even desirable – and Gallas’s revelations of half-time arguments were largely met with a “Yeah, and…?” response. What is unusual is for any player, even a disaffected one, blowing the whistle on his teammates. When it does happen, it generally says more about the character of the teller of the tales than their subjects.
For the captain to be the tittle-tattle just makes it worse. How can any player with an issue consult a captain who makes such problems public? And while it’s fine for a captain to complain about his lot in life, to do so by shifting blame and scattering accusations left, right and centre – and then effectively naming and shaming the alleged culprits – to the detriment of team morale is not the act of a good leader. It’s the act of a spoilt brat.
Arsene Wenger’s response was swift and inevitable. Gallas was deposed as captain and dropped from the squad for Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester City – a game which clearly demonstrated what can happen to a team lacking clear leadership – and his future at the club must now be considered uncertain.
Yes, Gallas’s outburst in the Birmingham game has been repeatedly used as a stick with which to beat him. Yes, there were mitigating circumstances insofar that this was the game in which Eduardo da Silva suffered a horrific broken leg and emotions had been running high throughout the game. But for a defender to walk away from the action when he might have been needed to clear the ball had the penalty been saved was both unprofessional and self-indulgent in the extreme. For the captain, doubly so. (As a manager at work, if someone in my team makes a mistake, I don’t yell at them and then go home in a strop. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s counter-productive.)
Many argued that Gallas should have been immediately stripped of the captaincy that day; others countered that at least he was showing he cared. For me, the only thing it showed was that, when push comes to shove, William Gallas cares only about William Gallas, period. And his remarks last week, even if taken out of context, only serve to reinforce that view. What Gallas said was so thoughtless and selfish that it was the antithesis of what captaincy and leadership should be about.
It is apparent that Gallas, with his attempts to shift the blame for the team’s problems onto others, regarded the role of captain as more of a burden than an honour.
It’s an attitude in stark contrast to, say, John Terry who was thrilled to captain England last week. After a mix-up with Scott Carson which led to Germany’s goal in the 2-1 win, he took personal responsibility for what was a 50:50 error and saw it as his role as captain to urge his team on to do something about it. Now that’s stepping up as a leader.
William Gallas is a very good footballer. However, in the same way that great players don’t automatically become great managers, they don’t necessarily make the best captains either.
After the events of the last few days, it’s clear Gallas doesn’t fit the captaincy mould. As critical as I've been of him both here and in the past, that’s not a crime, though. It’s time for both him and Arsenal to move on. Whether the best solution is reconciliation or divorce remains to be seen.
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