Soccer Magazine

The Self-Seer: Gaizka Mendieta (Fleeting Comets #7)

By Sgulizia @catch22soccer

The Self-Seer: Gaizka Mendieta (Fleeting Comets #7)

Like in the classic horror tale written by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), which used the ancient motif of the doppelgänger, the stunning plunge into anonymity of Gaizka Mendieta’s career involves one side of Faustian experimentation and another one of epistemological nature. (The Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele too dealt with the phenomenon in a number of works, including a famous series of nude portraits and, most importantly, the 1910 painting The Self-Seers that contains a bewildering, ironic meditation on death.) In the summer of 2001, the Basque footballer—whose style, even in his best days, looked inscrutable and slightly esoteric, as in the German pun Verwesen, a decadent ‘non-being’— had just succeeded David Beckham in winning a trophy as the best European midfielder of the year; he had also driven the unfashionable team of Valencia to two consecutive finals of Champions League, both ending in defeat.

Far and wide people were really going to pay attention to Mendieta, as they did to the two architects of Valencia’s success: Claudio Ranieri, whose coaching is accompanied by raw energy and brush-strokes of old-fashioned man-marking, when necessary, and the hombre vertical Hector Cuper, who eventually had a spell at Inter (at the time the team was a hot seat) and who resembled more closely Egon Schiele because of his insistence on neutralizing the background. Apart from ethical considerations, Cuper’s monochrome one-dimensionality made the bodies of his players look insecure and gave their movements a spasmodic or nervous quality. Integral to this ideal of scrutiny and self-portrayal, Mendieta contributed to a greater physical expressiveness. His mark became one of defamiliarization.

Once the financially extravagant Cragnotti, then president of Lazio, won the competition among Mendieta’s suitors, the transfering fee skyrocketed, making of the Basque midfielder the most expensive player in Spain. In recent years, Mendieta denied to have been bothered by these details, but it’s hard to imagine how his balance would not be pushed to a radical, unprecedented level of provocation. This is where geopolitics also comes into the picture. A certain reluctance crept into Mendieta, and stayed with him until his English crepuscule with Middlesbrough; at all stages of his descending career, he acted as somebody who went to lecture abroad, unsure whether any of the classic texts were available in the country’s libraries. It appeared that Valencia explicitly made sure he was not going to be sold back to Real Madrid, which sounds like Clinton dispatching Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 to negotiate a deal—or like the U.S. trying to prevent a unified Korea to become a nuclear power, because there will be no way afterwords to stop Japan from becoming one too.

Mendieta’s angular, irregular outlines already made it for a idiosyncratic character, who was always going to find hard to play solo, without interpolations, and away from the more unified and intense atmosphere of his original team. What the murky experience in Italy gave him, though, was an unexpected crescendo of mockery and self-mutilation. At Lazio, Mendieta’s style reminds the clumsy and unclear tone of a letter that Egon Schiele wrote to Oskar Reichel in September 1911:

When I see myself entire, I shall have to see myself and know what I want, not only know what is happening within me but also to what extent I have the ability to look, what means are mine, what enigmatic substances I am made of and of how much of that greater part that I perceive and I have hitherto perceived in myself. I see myself evaporating and exhaling more and more, the oscillations of my astral light are growing faster, directer, simpler, and like a great insight into the world. Thus I am constantly accomplishing more, producing further and infinitely more shining things from within myself, insofar as love, which is everything, endows me in this way and leads me to what I am instinctively attracted by, what I want to drag into myself, in order to make something new anew that I have seen in spite of myself.

Schiele’s messianic charisma is clearly reminiscent of Nietzsche, and the underlying theme is that of the naked philosopher who can only gain knowledge of the world through a mirror of himself. Mendieta was not a turn-of-the-century narcissist or a dogmatic modernist, yet he struggled with the appearance of plausibility the way men overcome religion. Never a player made for the quirky and the witty, he kept the tempo in the complexity of today’s soccer experience like different clocks simultaneously going at different rates of speed. Like Schiele before him, Mendieta’s experience was both mystical and physical—his frequently unsightly, tortured look a way to display the  fleeting, unsubstantial, dual nature of his career. ♦

  • Gaizka Mendieta Zabala
  • Born: 27 March, 1974, Bilbao.
  • Clubs: Castellon (1991-92), Valencia (1992-2001), Lazio (2001-02), Barcelona (2002-03, loan), Middlesbrough (2003-04, loan, and 2004-2008).
  • Spain: 40 caps, eight goals.

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