I find it interesting that a few days after having written about the departure of an elite sportsman from a sport I love, another Michael would ultimately announce his retirement as well. This time, however, it would be Owen and not Schumacher, and while many can also point to this Michael effectively retiring some years ago just like the other Michael did (ha. ha.), one can’t help but feel sad not just at his departure from the sport at the end of the season, but also at the lack of acknowledgement that dreams and passions change.
First off, the former. I feel sad that Michael Owen is retiring from the sport because he formed a very important part of the football I know as I was growing up. His explosion on the world stage during the 1998 World Cup in France for England was only a few years into the start of my deep interest in football. Of course, he had also played very important parts for Liverpool back then, but that was a time when English footballers first became truly (in)famous.
Aided by the social context of the time, when coverage and money flowing into the sport started to increase on a more international level, most countries rarely have one, let alone two footballers, who shot into stratosphere for very different reasons. Of course, Beckham’s sending off provoked a huge international outcry, both positive and negative, but almost lost in the middle of all that was Owen’s superb goal against Argentina. In a tournament of great goals (think Bergkamp’s against the same opponents in a later stage of the tournament), that was one of the standouts. Lest we forget, Beckham provided the assist for that goal, too.
After that, he continued for a few years on a fairly high level with Liverpool, Real Madrid and even Newcastle, where, despite spending a huge chunk of his contract on the treatment table, he still managed a fairly respectable strike rate. Even at Manchester United, he provided a number of moments that lives long in the memory. A hat-trick against Wolfsburg (faded through they were, but they were the German champions at the time) was a fine reminder of his abilities. A last-minute winner against Manchester City should not be forgotten, either.
The issue, as it has been for a number of years, is that these performances are further and fewer in between. Call it whatever you like, and for a number of different reasons, but the fact remained that he played, then he got injured (see League Cup final vs Aston Villa). He played, then he didn’t play well (vs Sunderland). The stop-start nature of all this was frustrating to behold.
Throughout all this, however, he remained the model professional. He did not speak badly of someone who failed to pass the ball to him, he didn’t moan when he was constantly on the bench (even after he had scored a goal in a previous match). There was the air of someone who has accepted his fate, but this is also a man who performed as a professional when he is (able to be) called upon.
After a while, though, I think the thing that killed him was the changing of passions. He became more and more interested in things outside of football, as you tend to do when you get older, maybe even wiser. I wrote about Michael Schumacher still being driven to compete as much as possible in a sport he loved. Michael Owen, on the other hand, seems to be just as driven, but in other fields of his life.
His dreams, his passion, therefore, has changed.
Is this such a crime, then? The amount of vilification he has received in some quarters does not necessarily mask his achievements in the game, but the lack of acknowledgement to consider him as a human being, complex and changing all the time, seems distasteful. I agree that he did not do as much as he could have done in the latter years of his career (could he have done? The injuries he consistently suffered must have taken their toll), but for a free transfer with a better strike rate than Fernando Torres’s at Chelsea to be treated with distaste and contempt says more about the people who think that they are in the know, then it does about Owen himself.
It is a pity, though. He scaled the very heights of the mountain top few players were able to reach in their professions. It is not necessarily reflected in the silverware, but the impact that he has given to the lives of others, especially as a young, sprightly player who tormented veterans was really something special.
As an aside, I read in the season diary of 1996/97 by Sir Alex Ferguson of Michael Owen playing against a United reserve team. John Curtis, who was very highly rated by both the people in the know at United and the coders of Championship Manager, was said to have been given a very tough time by Owen. More surprisingly, Ferguson also wrote that Owen was someone who they had training with them for a short while before he eventually opted to sign for Liverpool. I don’t know how true this could have been, for it failed to really pop up in a lot of the other sources, but Sir Alex has written it, and in this case, I’m inclined to believe it. Unless, of course, he was talking about another Michael Owen, which is not impossible, but not very likely.
Such stories makes me wonder about what might have been. Then I catch myself thinking that, and I stop. I realise that despite having played for elite teams throughout his career, I am still left wondering what might have been.
I guess maybe Michael felt that way, too. Perhaps he got tired of simply waiting, and is content with what actually is.
And in truth, so am I.
Thank you, Michael.