On the spectrum of retirements, Petr Cech hit the neutral point at dead centre. His short statement was humble and to the point. Cech will turn 37 in May and while he hasn’t outstayed his welcome, the time feels right for a curtain call.
There’s no sense, either, that Cech’s hand has been forced. He may have lost his place at Arsenal to Bernd Leno, but he remains a highly capable goalkeeper who could have enjoyed a lucrative victory lap in a less competitive league. No, this will be the end: there are four months of fixtures left, just enough time for Cech to take his bows.
It’s a situation which brings to mind the tricky matter of retirement. In the last few days, Andy Murray has had to limp from the tennis court and the dynamic there is of a career being torn away. His body has called time on him, rather than the other way around. It isn’t official yet and that rather awkward ceremony at the Australian Open jumped the gun, but the end is clearly imminent and, in an ideal world, it would have come without this uncomfortable struggle with his own sporting mortality.
In time, it won’t matter. Murray’s legacy is strong enough to make this strange ellipsis irrelevant and, eventually, it will be long forgotten. Sometimes the nature of a departure does linger, though, embellishing or reducing the memory of who an athlete once was.
Barry Sanders will always be a reference point in this conversation. Sanders was a running-back for the Detroit Lions between 1988 and 1998 and announced his retirement at just 31. Old for his position though he may have been, at the time he was barely 1,500 yards away from Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Milestones have always complicated careers and so when one appears in the distance, as it did for Sanders, the overwhelming temptation must be to limp on towards beckoning immortality.
But Sanders wasn’t obviously in decline. His statistics may have begun to droop by 1998, but he wasn’t a player definitively on the wane. It didn’t matter. At the end of that NFL season he faxed a statement to a local paper, booked a holiday in London, and was gone before it had published. His love for the game had gone, he had achieved all he wanted and he was retiring for good. There was no tearful press conference, no farewell run of games. In the years since, Sanders has claimed that records were never particularly important to him, but the pull of that one – which carves any player’s name into stone – would have been semi-gravitational.
It really was a remarkable act of humility. It also applied an enduring gloss to his body of work: he produced nothing but excellence and never gave the world the chance to see at anything less than his best. Sanders departed the NFL before he’d satiated the sporting public’s appetite. People still wanted to see him play and, inevitably, retiring while that remained true left a very elegant bookend.
Sanders’ obvious parallel in English football is Eric Cantona. They were different people playing different sports very differently, but there are still straight lines between them. Cantona bid the game farewell at 31. History has been kind to him in the sense that, despite subtle signs of wearing, he is often described as having retired in his prime. It’s not really true, but that’s a myth he helped to perpetuate. The last, defining image of his playing career captured him in that off-red tracksuit top, holding the Premier League trophy above his head. In hindsight, his sullen expression betrays what was about to happen, but in that moment he still looked young. His hair was still dark and full, and his face retained the definition of youth.
It’s a simple premise: be the party guest who leaves at midnight, not the one who stumbles into the night at 4am, shirt torn and one shoe missing.
Maybe the nature of a retirement also passes inadvertent judgement on an athlete’s character. Not always, but sometimes. As Sanders’ decision betrayed that unusual humility, Cantona’s departure tallied with the contrarianism at the root of his playing personality; he was aloof, he played as if the game needed him rather than the other way around, and then – as a final act – he proved it. It’s natural to find that seductive, as almost testimony of some deep authenticity.
There is a caveat here, of course: early retirement is a luxury. Modern wages have turned the finest athletes into potential captains of industry, meaning that retirement itself is a more inviting prospect. It’s a lot easier for a player to shrug and walk away if he has a burgeoning fashion label or a media company to run, instead of the vague promise of a pub license and the prospect of spinning tired yarns for eternity.
But bad retirements still exist and they remain a great inconvenience to healthy legacy. One of the reasons why Larry Holmes’ pummelling of Muhammad Ali in 1980 was so ugly, for instance, was
not just because of who Ali was and what he represented, but because it showed him to be fragile and, ultimately, very human. His was a career of miracles, in which there was no challenge he couldn’t meet, and the sight of Holmes throwing reluctant punches at a defenceless Ali shattered that myth, revealing his mortality.
Footage of that fight can still be found and the pertinent detail is not really what happens in the ring, but Howard Cosell’s mournful commentary from ringside. Cosell had a special relationship with Alli, but in those seconds, when it was clear that the fight had been a terrible mistake, he was just another fan being exposed to something he didn’t want to see. In a vague, abstract way, top-level sport is an illusion. How often do magical and mystical similes appear in match reports? We like players who do things which are beyond us and which we can’t understand. Within that context, anything ordinary or explainable becomes almost intolerable. So: ageing, weakening, getting slow?
Football doesn’t deal in boxing’s primal themes and, obviously, its metaphors are never so brutal, but it’s still natural to feel protective over a player’s best years and to recoil when their powers decline. There’s purity at stake; nobody enjoys reading awkward paragraphs in an obituary. It’s why most wanted Didier Drogba’s last kick in professional football to have been that penalty against Bayern Munich, for Hristo Stoichkov never to have set foot in MLS, and for Jim Baxter’s performance for Scotland at Wembley to remain unblemished by that aberration at Nottingham Forest.
It’s a transcendent issue which exists in any situation in which spectacle is king. If Robert Plant can’t hit the right notes, would you really want to see Led Zeppelin play? If Dylan forgets the words to Isis, does seeing him standing on the stage in front of you feel the same? It may not be quite as binary as Sick Boy’s Theory Of Life, but excellence always has a half-life and only understanding when to hide it away allows it to survive forever.