“It’s just a shame that Van Persie, a world-class player, came up with a piece of magic at the end. He is worth the entrance fee alone.” – Steve Bruce
What constitutes leadership seems fairly obvious: there’s experience, charisma, success, temperament, and colleagues’ respect. Yet what constitutes a captain is far less clear. What is captain material? In the effort to identify this elusive substance, debates toss around any number of attributes and then place them into types.
First, there’s the captain as a communicator. He’s a talker. Throughout a match he barks commands, wields criticism, points to things, and commends good play and hard work. He speaks in the huddle and has one-on-one conversations at halftime. Then there’s the leader by example, whose actions do the talking. Instead of screaming at a player to pick up his game, the crunching tackle the captain just made says it all for him.
Also present in these debates are natural and acquired leadership types. They are less clear-cut than they are made out to be. The reason for this may have something to do with assumptions about natural leadership that go unchallenged.
What most people look for in a leader are qualities that they don’t have—leaders must be first and foremost special. Natural leadership is the distinguishing quality; people are either born with it or not. As a result, the rare genetic or God-given gift of natural leadership is preferred to acquired leadership, which is achieved through education and experience; comparatively it is all to human.
At age 28, Robin van Persie has not been considered captain material until now. Even during his time as Arsenal’s vice captain, his promotion was not discussed as long as Cesc Fábregas was with the club. In making the strongest case, Arséne Wenger was candid about van Persie’s evolution, while never quite conceding the Dutchman’s natural leadership capabilities.
During speculation about Fábregas’s replacement, Jack Wilshere’s name was also tossed into the hat. In contrast to van Persie’s education, Wilshere, at age 19 and with one impressive season, has already been identified as a natural leader. In some discussions, this inexplicable quality alone nearly put him on par for the promotion. Identifying natural leadership assumes that these attributes were already there in a player, if not at birth, then in some magical childhood experience. Did it form from a life lesson or some U11 blood-and-guts moment on the pitch? This then would only appear natural, having simply occurred before the player had our attention.
The truth may be far more ordinary. Recently, we learned that Apple CEO Steve Jobs found inspiration in a catalog. Zinedine Zidane found his through watching television. Where did that special and mysterious thing only he had come from? In the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, an anecdote offers a glimpse, “I had a running commentary in my head when I was playing. It wasn’t really my own voice. It was the voice of Pierre Cangioni, a television anchor form the 1970s. Every time I heard his voice, I would run towards the TV. As close as I could. For as long as I could. It wasn’t that his words were so important, but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere was everything…”
On August 16th, 2011, van Persie replaced Fábregas as captain. Is he captain material? Opinion was split. Some, despite strong reservations, admittedly understood why Wenger appointed van Persie. His seven loyal years at the club or his incredible form of last season were sufficient reasons.
Additionally, his seniority, age, and respect meet a number of criteria. From Wenger’s comments, it’s clear that loyalty was added to the list (in this light, resigning van Persie is a must). But the clear sense and logic of Wenger’s decision also points to the unflattering assessment that van Persie was understandably the only choice from a club with a persistent leadership void. With a lack of viable candidates, who else but an injury-prone, non-communicative striker could have been chosen?
Leading a post-Invincibles Arsenal has been one of football’s tough jobs; it’s an exacting task to both inspire teammates and help develop their potential. The role is difficult to navigate, because success lies at the end of a fine line. On one hand, as Fábregas experienced, an Arsenal captain will be held responsible for failing to make the team better. On the other hand, an Arsenal captain’s qualifications are questioned, since he was appointed from a group without leaders. Any accomplished captain would find it difficult to create title-winning initiative out of nothing. In the post-Fábregas era, the task has become more difficult. This bind defined the challenge awaiting van Persie from the moment he cinched the elastic band around his arm.
Van Persie’s promotion also had to contend with legitimate red flags raised by those who didn’t consider him captain material. He is emotionally impulsive, too injury prone, and by nature non-communicative. Yet, there are countless counter-examples at hand to undermine the certainty of any argument. Roy Keane wasn’t so much emotionally impulsive as emotionally explosive. Gary Neville missed all of Manchester United’s 2007-2008 season without officially relinquishing the armband or the respect of his manager and teammates.
Van Persie’s non-communicative nature alludes to the deeper indictment that he is not a natural captain and therefore unfit to lead. Wenger agreed in part that the striker is not a natural captain in the strict sense, but sees his evolution as part of a natural process, “Robin is a man who speaks his mind. I think he is one of these guys who develops with responsibilities. You would think he is not a natural captain at the start but he really has grown well into the role…I think he has a combination of leadership on the pitch. He is technically a super-talent…Now he has added the second part, that means speaking his mind.”
Wenger may see a synthesis of leadership types that many would say is yet to be so firmly established. How important is it for van Persie to add communication to leadership by example? Any answer might consider Carlos Tevez who, having no command of English, captained Manchester City to third in the Premier League solely by example.
Determining what makes a good captain is not a science. Natural leadership is as much myth as fact, since no one is born with experience. Likely most captains today weren’t tipped to be leaders in their teens. Captains have succeeded with a few attributes, while some have disappointed despite seemingly to have them all. Captaincy is so difficult to assess on its own terms that even the dire leadership void at Arsenal fails to determine anything beyond being a potential handicap.
In a nightmarish season of defection, disillusion, and injury, most of Arsenal’s few bright spots can be directly attributed to van Persie performances. His equalizer at Udinese helped secure Arsenal’s 14th straight Champions League appearance. He secured an important 1-1 away draw against a quality Borrusia Dortmund team. He reached 100 career goals with two against Bolton in a 3-0 win.
His top class performances that single-handedly beat Sunderland and Stoke in successive weeks may say little about the true value of van Persie as captain, but it highlights the immediate effect of his messianic form. So far, the evidence accounts for all the captain material he needs. If this isn’t priceless, then it’s at least worth the entrance fee alone.