Usain Bolt is not only a Jamaican superstar; he is a Caribbean icon. He took the pride and respect of millions of West Indians with him whenever he graced the athletics tracks across the globe. His illustrious career was celebrated by all of us. Now that he has retired, Mr. Bolt at the age of 32 when many footballers are eyeing retirement, is seeking to fulfill a boyhood dream of becoming a professional footballer. His pursuit of that goal has occasioned a range of reactions worldwide ranging from consternation, bemusement and ridicule to admiration and a desire that he succeeds.
We will be the first to encourage all aspirants to follow their realistic dreams. But, there are occasions when pipe dreams are not easily discernible by those pursuing them and there is the need for a caring and reasonable voice to interject with dispassionate honesty. Perhaps, because Mr. Bolt has been our hero, West Indian sports enthusiasts, commentators and fans have been loathed to provide dispassionate truths.
But those outside the Caribbean who understand the sport of football and the science therein with respect to initiation into the sport, nutrition, training, skills set, age and retirement, have been quick to point out that one does not start a professional football career at age 32, having not gone through the early processes of building one’s football from the embryonic stages. And as Mr Bolt skirts around the world – his last stop being in Australia – there are many who believe that this Caribbean treasure is becoming a global laughing stock and possibly doing damage to his magnificent sports legacy.
Of course, the novelty of such a legend playing professional football will pack stadiums anywhere and his marketability is simply what has made a number of clubs take the time to give him a trial. But previous training stints at Borussia Dortmund in Germany, Stromsgodset in Norway and at Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa have all exposed Mr. Bolt as not up to professional standard. His present stint with the Central Coast Mariners in Australia’s A League has become farcical to say the least.
Mariners’ coach Mike Mulvey said last Sunday that Bolt was nowhere near the standard required to play for his team. Talks of a contract offer to Bolt, he added, had to come via the club’s boardroom and not as a direct recommendation from him. To make matters worse, reports emanating from Australia were that Bolt was no longer training because a reported offer did not meet his connections’ expectations. They were seeking a $2.1 million deal while an offer of just over $100 000 was reportedly placed on the table. Irrespective of the numbers, any squabble over fees for a man with no history of top-level football was bound to draw the ire and ridicule of professional footballers.
And professional footballers with a keen eye for the game have been dismissive of his skills. Former Republic of Ireland striker Andy Keogh described Bolt as having the first touch of a trampoline.
“He’s not going to be able to make it,” said Keogh.
“It’s nice to have the attention on the A-League but him playing here, that’s not for me,” the former Wolves and Millwall player said.
“He’s shown a bit of potential but it’s a little bit of a kick in the teeth to the professionals that are in the league,” Keogh added, while noting that a potential professional contract for Bolt was “fine from a marketing point of view” but was “farcical” from a football perspective.
“If there’s someone who genuinely thinks he’d be a good football addition, I don’t think they should be in a position to make those calls,” Keogh said.
Former Liverpool and Bayern Munich defender Markus Babbel also criticized Usain Bolt’s attempted transition into a football player describing it as nothing more than a publicity stunt. “As a PR campaign, it is sensational. But, honestly, I cannot take that seriously. I saw him play. That’s never enough in a hundred years. As a player, I would feel like a fool,” Babbel said.
But perhaps the most instructive comment on Bolt’s quest came from his homeland and placed the entire scenario in perspective. Many have queried Bolt’s decision to head across the globe rather than remain in Jamaica and hone his skills in a domestic league that is arguably the best in the English-speaking Caribbean. Jamaica’s Football Federation president Michael Ricketts stated: “I am a little disappointed that Usain hasn’t signed up with a Jamaican club. That would give us a chance to see a lot more of him. If he shows he’s good enough to make the Jamaican team then he will be called up, but we are following his progress – we are watching him closely.” And as if to echo Keogh and Babbel, Ricketts added: “Usain has a special attribute in his speed. If he can add a little bit of skill, some flair, he could supplement this Jamaican team.”
And that is what it seems those in Norway, Germany, South Africa, Australia – and Jamaica are saying – being a great sprinter does not make one a professional footballer, especially without the requisite skills and flair. We would wish that the world remembers Bolt for his greatness on the track and not as the butt of jokes on any football field.