Soldier On

A few months ago, as his team prepared for a European semifinal against Liverpool,Roberto Soldado was strolling around the training ground of Villareal CF, singing a Tottenham song. His Tottenham song.

Soldado / Oh! / He came from sunny Spain / to play at White Hart Lane!

He was doing so because a Daily Mail reporter was next to him, trying to get him to answer some variation on the question Soldado has had to face since leaving England last summer: What on earth went so wrong for you at Spurs?[1]

That day’s answer was judicious and lightly tactical: “To not get overpowered, when I came looking for the ball I started to think that I had to play a little bit further from the goal to get space away from the defenders and perhaps because of that — plus some bad luck — I didn’t score as many goals as I wanted to.”

In the myopic imagination of Tottenham Hotspur’s supporters, Soldado (our “Bobby”) does this second guessing as a sort of ritual: greets the Castelléon morning before his teammates, grins his way through a run to training, then stands before a goal and redoes them all: the run he made just a shade too late, the ball he can’t fathom why he sidefooted, the header ballooned rows deep into the North Stand instead of neatly tucked either side of the keeper. Then, serenaded by himself in the weighty voice of tens of thousands of Londoners, he walks the ball back to the center circle.

What went wrong with Soldado at Spurs is mildly interesting, but the question of why we care that he cares is the more fascinating.

It’s surely not because Tottenham supporters are a particularly sympathetic lot. Earlier on in my Tottenham fandom, I was listening to a podcast in which the host asked a Tottenham fan and football writer what the club needed to do in the summer transfer window after yet another spring spent lurching into fifth place in the Premier League. He started his answer “I ‘ATE Assou-Eko’o”, dismissing, with several perfectly North London dropped consonants, the joyful, supporter-loving left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the tone I use to describe autoplay ads on news websites.

It’s that on-to-the-next-one attitude that has defined so much of my club’s recent history as a fixture of English football’s neurotic sub-Champions League purgatory. We’re rich enough that we shouldn’t put up with anything but the best, but not so rich that we don’t have to constantly be looking for bargains.

It’s also not that his failure was even that spectacular.

It was really bad. So, let’s talk about those goals he didn’t score that he spends every waking moment regretting (ya know, probably), which themselves had the tendency to be a spectacle. Or rather than talk about it, let me share with you this video of some of his worst misses from his first year in England made by somebody with the most rudimentary of iMovie skills and terrific, if contextually questionable, taste in music:

As you can see, the White Hart Lane goalposts, for their own sake, must have been relieved to see him go when his time with Spurs was up.

The big picture for this is that the three years before Tottenham bought Soldado for £26 million from Valencia, he averaged 20 goals in a season. In 42 appearances over two years with the club, he scored seven times. Famously, he didn’t score from open play in the Premier League until nearly spring of his first season.

So why isn’t he a spectacular failure? In the long view, his arrival just wasn’t a harbinger of doom for Tottenham.

In the summer Soldado arrived, the club was awash in the money they got for Gareth Bale, and set out to amass an array of attacking talent to replace him. In my opinion, the fact that Christian Eriksen, Érik Lamela, and Nacer Chadli came with Soldado to North London in 2013 makes the record fee paid for Soldado ultimately inconsequential. There’s also every reason to think that a mere subpar season for Soldado, as opposed to a dreadful one, in 2013-2014 would not have been enough to get Tottenham to a Champions League place, given a team in flux in most key positions and a midseason management change.

Then there’s Harry Kane. After years of wheeling and dealing for forwards who either ran intensely hot and cold, or whose attitude or style of play didn’t fit the other attacking players, Tottenham found in the autumn of ’14 that they had been developing a kid who fit the style of the new manager perfectly, seems to preternaturally score amazing goals against the club’s archrival, and oh yeah, grew up just down the road. Harry Kane is Drew Brees and Jon Hamm with a dash of Adele. In a flash, he shoved a bookend on the meh era of Soldado.

Shouldn’t this all be an ideal recipe for a player like Roberto Soldado to be utterly forgotten by the fans of a team?

In the fall of 2014, I started watching games with my local Tottenham supporters’ club. The first day I went, early on a Sunday morning, Spurs blew a lead to the never consistently dangerous West Bromwich Albion at home and lost. That kind of game was a familiar sight for those first few months of that season as new manager Mauricio Pochettino plugged away at carving the squad into a model of diligent and slick attacking football. Occasionally Soldado started games in those glum early days of that campaign.

As Tottenham academy product Harry Kane moved quickly from diverting novelty to legitimate phenomenon, Soldado’s appearances began creeping closer to the 90th minute. My inclination was to groan or roll my eyes when I saw him readying himself on the touchline, but those around me at the Spurs bar cheered unreservedly. When in those appearances he would miss a sitter, we’d get a chorus of “Bobby!”, with the emphasis on the first syllable, the way you’d lightly scold and lovingly tease a kid brother at the same time. It was infectious.

I think part of this has to do with Soldado having had a number of easy outs for explaining away his time at Spurs. I’m more suited to succeed in the Spanish game. Management turmoil. Even age (he was already 28 when Spurs paid that sum for him, an age at which he must have at least been receiving mail from whatever the striker’s version of AARP is.)

Aside from blaming a bit of bad luck, which nearly everyone who struggles has some right to do, he took none of the outs. After being shipped off to Villareal in August 2015 (where he immediately regained his touch. Just kidding.), he has constantly returned the warmth, with an attitude towards Spurs on social media that most resembles the guy who takes it upon himself to keep up the old inside jokes of an aging group of college friends on Facebook. He’ll go out of his way to take selfies of himself cheering along at home or have a gentle go at Arsenal.

“I was missing chances, things were going wrong, but no one could say I didn’t work. That mattered to me and maybe it’s why people treated me so well, despite everything. Even though I wasn’t scoring, I’d go to warm up and they’d sing my song,” Soldado told ESPN as this past season was ending, and he was closing in on qualifying for the Champions League with Villareal.

“I won’t forget their support, but it infuriates you more because you get so much support and don’t repay it.”

As my mid-twenties lurch towards my late twenties, I feel I’m honing in on the deepest reason for Roberto Soldado’s endurance as a fan favorite. Often, and recently for the first time for many of my peers, everything points towards taking the next logical step up. Maybe you’ve effectively mastered a job after years thinking you never could, or you make an important commitment to a partner for the first time. Maybe you’ve been the most consistent goal scorer in La Liga not named Messi or Ronaldo. Whatever it is, everybody makes a few of these jumps, and all but the exquisitely fortunate or otherworldly talented fail fundamentally at least once.

And it’s not your fault. Or, to be more accurate, it’s probably a combination of a maddening and small series of things that were your fault, plus bad luck, plus a glaring impediment to success you never could have been on the lookout for before you pushed yourself.

Gareth Bale, the guy whose sale to Real Madrid made Soldado’s £26 million signing possible, might actually be both exquisitely fortunate and an otherworldly talent. Before getting the opportunity to start regularly for Spurs late in the 09/10 campaign, he was the embodiment of a flameout: the big Welsh kid who looked like Eddie Munster and had long ago been a touted prospect from Southampton’s ever-bountiful academy. Tottenham had legendarily never won a game in which he had played until the end of that season.

But what a hell of an end of the season that was! Bale came into the side as a replacement at left back (for an injured Assou-Ekotto), and a few weeks later was a flying winger and the team’s single most important attacking threat. They beat Manchester City in the penultimate match of the Premier League season to secure fourth place and the Champions League play-in round birth.

In August 2010, Bale’s goals against Young Boys of Bern brought Spurs back from the brink of elimination in that Champions League play-in round. In the following three years, he carried Tottenham Hotspur to what felt like an unheard of extent in a game of 11 against 11. Since being sold for about €85 million, he has won the Champions League twice for a team in which he is an indispensable part, led his country to a European Championship semifinal, despite Wales having been firmly ensconced in the very bottom rungs of international soccer as recently as five years ago.

Most people seem to love Gareth Bale, and they should. It’s a story that makes us love sports. Soldado had to play the biggest part in replacing that guy. Imagine that.

As for the guy who definitively replaced Soldado: whatever happens to Harry Kane’s career from here on, the 22-year-old will always be a true local boy made astonishingly good. In modern soccer, and at a club that has a reputation for being especially cosmopolitan (for good and ill), that’s a story to be cherished. There’s a reason the song “Harry Kane/ He’s one of our own” means a little more than any other, even for us who grew up thousands of miles from London, N17.

We soccer fans especially need narratives like that of Gareth Bale and Harry Kane to keep our avocation from becoming a manic, distant churn of dazzling but interchangeable talent, propping up a handful of global brands. It needs Roberto Soldado, too. He’s not a limitless bundle of freakish talent; he’s not one of our own. He’s something as important: he’s us.

[1] Because God forbid English fans learn to center their context for a player’s career around anything but England.

Photo via Wonker on Flickr.

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