There are certain names that pop up whenever the discussion turns to "the greatest football players ever." Messi, Pele, Maradona. Cruyff, Platini, Beckenbauer, Zidane. Even a few farther off the beaten path, older players - Eusebio, Garrincha, Puskas, Di Stefano.
I submit, for your consideration, Matthew Le Tissier. Because he is awesome.
Le Tissier is a player too old for me to have seen live, but young enough to be melded to the fabric of the Internet. I discovered him years after I should have - he should be in textbooks - but once I did, he entered the pantheon of Players Whose Shirts I'd Buy After Retirement. He's in several other pantheons. When I'm bored with nothing to do, I can watch any video of Matt Le Tissier, whether I've never seen it or I've seen it a hundred times. The pantheon of Goals That Never Get Old. And then there's this video, which puts him in the pantheon of Players Whose Highlights Are Worthy of Mozart.
I watched that before I pasted the link in, and then again afterward. That's Le Tissier.
I try to draw comparisons across the lines of my various interests whenever I can, for reasons that elude me. I guess I just always want to be talking about something other than what I'm talking about. I talk about sports a lot when I'm talking about movies, and I talk about music a lot when I'm talking about sports. A friend of mine does a podcast/blog about the parallels between punk rock and hockey. Here's a thing matching up Best Picture winners with recent Champions League winners. It's a part of the fabric of how we talk about things; a great passer is called a "midfield maestro," there are countless other examples of how people analogize different types of performance.
Le Tissier wasn't Mozart, because Mozart gets just about exactly the amount of credit that he deserves. Le Tissier is more like football's answer to Jeff Mangum; when you hear it you know it's genius, and you feel like you've unlocked some kind of code that but he's not appropriately appreciated in his time or after. That video works quite well, but for the sake of a proper comparison between artist and artist, perhaps In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (be sure to mute the left-hand video, for best effects) is a bit more appropriate.
Two of my favorite skills a footballer can possess are the ability to dribble through a defense, and the ability to bomb the ball in the goal from a long way away. As an arsenal fan I, of course, also appreciate a great pass, but these two things are the ones that most get me going. And lo and behold! they are both present in Matt Le Tissier, in spades. And they're both very odd, because they interact in a strange way with what he was most famous for.
The decision to keep the ball to yourself, dribbling through ten defenders to the goal or lashing a shot from thirty yards, ignoring your teammates all the while, is an inherently selfish one, whether the player is cognizant of that or not. He may not actively think this, but what he's saying is "damn the others, I'll take care of this myself." That's something I see as necessary to become a truly great player, as the transcendent plays are the ones that require the most individualistic flair. But Matt Le Tissier stayed at Southampton - a relatively small club - his whole career, and though he was often overlooked by England managers, clubs didn't make the same mistake, as both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea tried to bring him in. He stayed.
Does this show that the selfishness "on display" through his play was restricted to the pitch? Does it show he preferred to stay the master of a smaller domain? You could make either argument, but since I've never met the man, I don't know that I can say for sure. My instinct, though, says that the man followed his instincts, both with the ball at his feet and without, and I don't think he was staying at Southampton with ill intent. He did, after all, offer at one point to buy the club to save it from financial peril.
Either way, Le Tissier did things on the field that I wish more footballers were willing or able to do. He was a video game player, with his attributes cranked to full, the difficulty set to "beginner," and then dropped into the real world to wreak havoc. Matt Le Tissier was the real-life version of the player we all become when we dream about being famous footballers. And he deserves to be spoken of in the same terms of some of the other greats, even without the trophies.
ADDENDUM: Here's a Le Tiss Fact that I forgot to include. He took nearly fifty penalties while playing for Southampton, and missed only one. Nottingham Forest's goalkeeper that day said that it was the best moment of his career. Moral of the story: Matt Le Tissier is awesome.