Paul Scharner. There’s a name you probably haven’t heard in a long minute, or perhaps not at all depending on when you started your relationship with the beautiful game. For the uninitiated, Scharner was a man – a man’s man. A man who did whatever he damn well pleased with the hair on his head (greatest hits include a Mohawk dyed every color on the visible spectrum and one invisible without the aid of infrared, and of course the style that included having “THANX” spray-painted on the back of his neck in a tribute to the fans during his final game). He sometimes sported a Fu-Manchu, sometimes a goatee, and sometimes, he was just your average, clean-shaven, 6’3 Austrian dude. The first time I saw him play he scored a goal in a 5-3 defeat of Blackburn Rovers in December of 2007. Coincidentally, this was the first Premier League game I had ever been privileged to see on TV after my parents got cable, as European football in the United States around this time was nothing more than a cold, unpopped kernel that we have, only seven years later, just recently decided to give a go-around in the microwave.
I think I was lucky in that way. If I wasn’t completely oblivious to the fact that Wigan was a bottom-feeding Premier League team, who that very season would scrape together 40 points in a bated-breath effort for Premier League safety, and who in the coming years would fight to stay afloat for what would ultimately end in Championship tears, I probably would have never decided that this was the team with which I wanted to pledge my allegiance. I would have chosen a team like Manchester United or Real Madrid – easily digestible, one-size-fits-all teams that win often and look sexy doing it. I was 17, an awkward Yankee boy in the pressure cooker that is high school, struggling to find a kindred who could share what was my budding love for the soccer where you actually use your feet. When I saw Scharner wheel away from scoring that goal, in all his devil-may-care, bleach-blonde topped, goateed glory, I felt for the first time as though someone had let me in on a little secret.
In the next few months the best I could do was dig for highlights on slow loading football compiler sites, just to see what Wigan had done that week. This was when the true portrait of the club started to formulate before me. Aston Villa 2 – Wigan 1, Middlesbrough 1 – Wigan 0, Portsmouth 2 – Wigan 0. They finished in 13th place on 40 points that year and that was considered a massive achievement. The fact that Wigan’s version of success would likely be comparable to other, bigger clubs’ versions of failure made me like them even more. I didn’t care that they brought home no domestic trophies, or would not be plying their trade in Europe next season. I did care that they would live to see another Premier League day. To me, they represented everything worth resonating with – the spirit of competing against the odds, the knowledge of knowing there are no guarantees even when you’re at your very best, and the fight for the right to be beautiful and unique in the face of giants who want nothing more than to defeat you, a trait personified in exemplary fashion by a certain Austrian who would be named Wigan’s 2007/2008 player of the year.