Adel Taarabt, the footballing dandy – Column
Monday, 29th Mar 2021 16:55 by George Browne
Our final guest column of the latest international break sees QPR fan George Browne go deep with an ode to football, fashion, 19th century French poetry, and those wonderful years we spent with Adel Taarabt.
Football and fashion in the same sentence evokes a sense of multicoloured figures swarming terraces with wreaths, compasses, three stripes, and bizarre goggles emblazoned on exact fitted clothing. Football and fashion, though, takes a different meaning when applied to those actually actively involved in the game as opposed to the observers of it.
The fashion of a football player when on the pitch provides little room for manoeuvre but somehow it is where a considerable amount of personality can be manifested through slight alterations of sock height, gloves being donned, the shade of colour of boots and many other minute variables.
The moment a player walks onto a pitch with boardy leather monochrome boots besmirched with mud, a short sleeved shirt, and likely grazed knees, their role has already been given to them. It seems impossible that they would take any position other than an engine room central midfielder or a no nonsense central defender. The simple act of choosing these alterations of kit seems to ensure that any 50-50 tackles are forever in his favour despite this being mathematically impossible. Their presence in a team appears a necessity for it to gain the ability of seeing out a tight one-nil victory.
Then there is the winger: clad in a thermal, vividly coloured boots, and gloved. The often slight and perhaps vulnerable appearance they hold evokes a sense that it was their mother dressing them prior to the game: ensuring that they don’t catch a cold. It is also this vulnerability that seems to catalyse the fans' love of them: there is no player more likely than a winger to summon a deep cry of ‘gowan myason’ from the terraces as they slalom their way past a fullback and drive towards the by-line.It must also be said that the winger is also the most recipient of a ‘ohfafwaksake’ as their cross aimlessly drifts over those arriving in the box. The paternal relationship they often experience with fans still contains the drawbacks.
There, admittedly, remain positions on the pitch that the fashion of the players who occupy them does not so resolutely reveal the type of player they are. The fullback for example, likely due to the variety of players who can occupy the position, remains an enigma. There are also aspects of football fashion that have traditionally induced opinions until a player inverts these views. A goalkeeper wearing leggings seemed to inject an uneasiness in fans until two recent Brazilian goalkeeping exports to the premier league: Allison and Ederson emphatically destroyed this previously held view. Both players being recent recipients of the Golden Glove award with leggings being a constant fixture of their wardrobe.
My realisation of the role a player’s on-pitch fashion has in formulating an opinion of them can be pinned down to one player who encapsulated what the true essence of a maverick: Adel Taarabt. The Moroccan central attacking midfielder was a truly remarkable player: his ability to manipulate the ball unmatched. The game where I realised how my opinion of him was formulated occurred during Swansea at home on Boxing Day during the 2010/11 season.
Taarabt’s performance on this day can only be described as unbelievable: it caused an event only made possible by the highest echelon of performance - applause from the opposition support. He transcended all those he shared the pitch with. Any attempts to mark, tackle or track were futile as he became no longer a player but the true essence of skill. This becoming of an essence was not solely brought about through his performance but also his choice of clothing.
Taarabt’s precise personal alterations of his kit distinguished from the rest of the players. The alterations seemed to hold careful considerations: he showed none of his body other than his upper neck and head. His oversized kit provided him with a quality of movement far elevated from any player during this game or throughout the season. It seemed to enable him to veil his intent: the direction and the speed with which he proceeded only apparent once the defender had been beaten. His high socks covering nearly the entirety of his knees, loose shirt, baggy shorts, gloves and a high neck thermal created his body with a language that no defender was fluent in. He was essentially a floating head as he turned the Swansea defence into the softest of linens and weaved through them with complete ease. It was this performance that on reflection made me realise that Taarabt’s fashion did not begin on the football pitch but instead during the 18th and 19th century in England and France.
Taarabt was and will forever be to me the footballing dandy. Style was the pinnacle of his aims, he indulged in long periods of idleness, and was incapable of aligning himself with normal societal modes of behaviour. It was not solely his fashion that imposed me to give him the title The Footballing Dandy but his unique style of play. The act of passing is taught, indefinitely, to be enacted by the inside of your foot striking the ball. This, for Adel, was too common instead he chose to play the ball most often with the outside of his foot. This enabled him to seemingly do away with the laws of physics - he could curve the ball around a defender directly infront of him, unlock the most ornate and intricately drilled defences with a mere flick.
This ability is most clearly seen when QPR played Coventry. In the last embers of the game, with it seemingly at an immovable stalemate Taarabt found Routledge with a pass of indescribable beauty. The pass was not only accurate to the highest degree (bending from the right by-line to just behind the penalty box, and in doing so taking out four Coventry players), but it had a pace and weight of outstanding excellence. It was only after my eighth watching of the goal did I realise how marvellous this pass was. It seemed to invite Westwood (the experienced Coventry goalkeeper) to claim it before instructing him to retreat, meaning when Routledge received the ball he was on the backfoot and unable to close the angle properly. This, in turn, provided Routledge with an unforeseen and unimaginable freedom to score. I admit that this paragraph is heavily laced with hyperbole but I struggle to find other words to convey what it was like watching Taarabt that season.
We’re quoting Baudelaire on LFW these days
The subjective nature of literature means to argue that there is a definitive definition or encapsulation of 'dandyism' would be a violence to the subject. Furthermore, one can argue that 'dandyism' is explicitly against definitive definitions - it is about the self as opposed to society. It should be argued, though, that Baudelaire’s essay of the title ‘The Dandy’ is the closest to it. In the essay, he writes that 'dandyism' is ‘an institution beyond the laws’ but that it contains within itself ‘rigorous laws which all its subjects must strictly obey’.
It is this view on 'dandyism' that brought to light the parallels between Taarabt’s style of play and the male aesthetic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The parallel is most strongly seen during the same season this Swansea performance occurred. It was the 2010/11 season where Taarabt enjoyed the pinnacle of his early career and was indefinitely the vital element for Queens Park Rangers promotion into the Premier League. Taarabt in that season inverted the classical archetype of a Championship level player, just as the dandy had previously inverted the classical view of the male. Taarabt would often leave the pitch around the seventieth minute (the complete ninety minutes were rarely required for him to emphatically disintegrate a team through his sheer abundance of skill) with his white shorts intact and rarely muddied. The half of the pitch where Queens Park Rangers would be defending their goal functioned as foreign country to Taarabt, and they did indeed do things differently there like tackling and tracking back.
Neil Warnock (Queens Park Rangers manager during this season) later revealed if either Taarabt entered or if someone passed to him in QPR’s half there would be a fifty pound fine. The Championship evokes players such Ross McCormack, Grant Leadbitter, and Alex Pearce. Even the coarse and plosive nature of these players' names juxtapose with Adel Taarabt, it would then be an understatement describe their style of play as the complete opposite.
The act of heading is one synonymous with Championship players; it can often prevent a players lack of technical ability being exposed. As one would assume this was not an act Taarabt would indulge in. He likely deemed it too crude. The movement involved in heading; the exertion of leaping, the closed eyes at the moment of contact, the lack of finesse - merely hitting the ball with the head - was of no interest. We see here Taarabt’s dandy nature: his willingness to reject accepted modes of societal behaviour, instead choosing to create his own set of rules - his own fashion.
It was not only Taarabt's lack of willingness to head the ball or style of play that distinguished him from the common Championship player but also his temperament. For Adel Taarabt the game of football was only truly happening when the ball was at his feet. You did not necessarily have to look at Adel’s feet to tell when he was in the possession of the ball - it would be apparent in how his kit hung on him. When he was not involved he would slouch and sulk. The blue and white hoops would sombrely drape over his body, appearing to encourage his complete indolence. When in possession, however, the horizontal hoops seemed to float with him. They seemed to crease in tandem with him, clinging to his seemingly ever morphing body. The bagginess meant one could never tell where his kit ended and his body began - he became a fluid state. The oversized kit was to Adel what the colour black was to Baudelaire: an expression of mood that exceeded expectation.
The parallel between Taarabt and 'the dandy' grew following QPR’s promotion to the Premier League and me being assigned The Importance of Being Earnest, a play by the arch Victorian dandy Oscar Wilde, to read at school. The promise that Taarabt showed in the Championship was never truly apparent in the Premier League. The Premier League revealed its soulless nature, dominated by oligarchs, free spending teams, fair weather fans and mercenary players seeking the biggest pay cheque. It appeared to me that while Adel was 'the dandy', the Premier League functioned in many ways like Noblesse Oblige. Interested only in a player or team when they are fashionable and then quick to discard them when this is no longer the case.
This is a slight personal rejection of the fundamental nature of elite competitive sport, a world where fashion has little place, but please forgive me. Taarabt’s lack of success within the Premier league was arguably due to him being the football dandy: a complete individual. The Premier League had no room for his single minded eccentricities, it instead requires players to perform a perfect adherence to a collective system. There is room for individual talent but it is a necessity that this talent is matched by a player's commitment. Neil Warnock recognised that Adel’s talent did not belong in a system - rather that the system should belong to Adel. Warnock’s predecessors Harry Redknapp and Mark Hughes did not hold this view - both quick to discard the player as overweight and lazy. They were not interested in creating a system around him, instead they wanted him to be a part of one. Taarabt in many ways did not align with their view of a traditional player, much in the same way that Jack, one of the dandys in Oscar Wilde’s play, does not align with Lady Bracknell’s view of the ‘correct’ man.
Walter Pater’s quote ‘Art for art’s sake’ encapsulated the nature of the aesthetic movement that Wilde, perhaps the most famous dandy of all [and Pater’s student], was the figurehead of. We could say that the Championship is ‘Football for football’s’ sake’. The nature of the Premier League (the reward of promotion) means there is no desire for anything greater than to simply have a good time at a game: to see players play with enjoyment and to feel part of a community. The Championship is a paradox: simultaneously the most (in terms of aims) and the least (quality of play) aesthetic league in the world. Fashion is arguably a somewhat hollow form of art. However, when seen in the unlikely domain of the football pitch, it possesses the ability to uncover what is truly beautiful about the beautiful game.
To end this essay I will leave you with the post-match interview manuscript of Coventry manager Aidy Boothroyd following the game where that pass occurred:
"The difference was Taarabt.
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