Many people believe that great talent is necessarily bound up with emotional disturbance. They are probably wrongby Oliver James / July 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The Gazza affair provokes a question: what is the relationship between exceptional achievement and emotional disturbance? That there is a relationship is not much in doubt. Studies of artists show higher than expected rates of manic depression, while higher than average rates of adversity are found in the childhoods of exceptional achievers. For example, one third of all prime ministers and presidents lost a parent before the age of 14 and similar rates have been found among famous entrepreneurs (Anita Roddick, Nigel Broackes) and the great novelists, poets and scientists in history.
As it happens, when Gazza was nine his dad was struck by a brain haemorrhage. As a child, Gazza suffered from symptoms of attention deficit disorder. He recalls that, “Since I was a baby I’ve been hyperactive. I can’t keep still.” His father’s affliction, the fact that his (domineering) mother was hard-pressed and “not a clingy person,” combined with a genetic propensity towards impulsiveness, may help to explain some of his behaviour: the deranged tackle he launched in the first minutes of the 1991 FA cup final, his occasional rucks in pubs and clubs, his attacks on his wife and his boorish public comments.
He also suffers from mild depression and loneliness. He describes himself as “moody” and has to sleep with the lights and television on. He uses junk food and alcohol to comfort himself, creating a weight problem. He has used bulimia (a sign of depression) to control it.
But if Gazza had not had these emotional problems or if they had been cured, would he have been as good a footballer? Can you have the innovative, unpredictable ball player on the field without the flaky character off it? During “Gazza week” many of his supporters were arguing that the two are inseparable.
The biographies of Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona and George Best lend some support to the view that talent and delinquency grow together, and that soccer can be a creative channel for violent emotions. (I have no doubt that my own love of playing soccer as an impulsive and aggressive teenager kept me out of borstal.) But there are many counter examples. Johan Cruyff, Pele and John Barnes are just a few of many supremely talented players who also have stable, balanced personalities. If emotional derangement is more common among the gifted, it is certainly not a sine qua non.
What is more,…