Flesh and blood



Edgar Davids played for Ajax, AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur. Now he is an entrepreneur, still playing for the love of the game. On May 15th Davids played for a Surinam All Stars team. The next day, Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool published a picture of Davids by ANP-photographer Remko de Waal. Thomas Rijsman, co-founder of One Saturday Afternoon, wrote an essay about a picture of a picture of Davids. 

Remko de Waal/ANP

Remko de Waal/ANP

I was drawn into the photo right away, the photo of Edgar Davids, the former football great, now 42 years old, who retired from the beautiful game two years ago. Now I see an aging man, being held by fan who’s taking a selfie of himself and Davids. The picture is taken by ANP-photographer Remko de Waal who says about the night he took the photo: “The sun was going down. Gentle yellow purple light filled the sky. Hundreds of people surrounded Davids. It was like being in Surinam. In reality the picture was taken in Amsterdam.”

The picture dates back to mid-May, when the Surinam All Stars team played the apprentices of Ajax. The match was played at Sportpark De Toekomst, Ajax’s youth campus. I’ve been there a thousand times in my role as a sports reporter, covering Ajax for the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool. In 2007 Davids returned to Ajax. He was in the final days of his career. I did an interview with him. It was the most unsatisfying interview I have ever had with a professional athlete. Davids had no intention of talking. He only answered my questions with a yes or a no, or countered my questions with the question: “Why do you want to know?” Between questions, he feigned boredom and disinterest. After 5 minutes, I stopped the interview. It was better for the both of us.

Davids has always been hailed as a hero because of his agressive style on the field, while at the same time being scrutinized for his arrogant attitude off the field, especially during post-game interviews. He’s the type you love or hate. Nonetheless, De Waal’s opinion is somewhere in the middle: “I mostly remember Davids playing for the Dutch national team. A real fighter. Very sanguineous.” In contrast to De Waal, my opinion lies further to the right: I’ve never liked Davids, even though my style on the field was kind of similar to ‘that of Davids pitbull style. His cocky attitude has always been just too much for me. It doesn’t seem to have a function. He appears to be fighting an invisible opponent. Always a chip on his shoulder. I wish better for him.

In the photo, which was published by Het Parool the day after the match, Davids looks remarkably different than the man I always saw on tv and had spoken to eight years ago. True, he still looks a bit on guard, especially in contrast to the people around him. Most of them look happy and some even look thrilled. De Waal remembers the atmosphere: “There was Surinam food and music. A really good vibe.” De Waal also remembers that Davids made an effort to connect with the crowd. “He really made time to sign autographs.”

In the photo, Davids is obviously not signing an autograph but is posing for a selfie with a fan. For a brief moment, in the midst of the organized chaos around him, in the midst of this familiar post-match ritual between fan and athlete, Davids is looking at an image of himself on the screen of the smartphone in front of him. And the real question is: “Who does he see?”

The whole scene reminds me of a short video called ’Aspirational‘, in which, and I quote, “the actress Kirsten Dunst and director Matthew Frost pull focus to this weird cultural trend that has replaced those archaic pen-to-paper autographs. Although posing for a photo alongside another person seems like it would be more of an interactive experience, Dunst and Frost suggest that it is just a shallow attempt to document this faux-interaction for social-network bragging purposes rather than connect human to human. If there is no social-networking evidence of that interaction, after all, what’s the point?”

The irony of the situation now seems almost comical. De Waal remembers Davids truly trying to connect with his fans, but by posing for a selfie he actually seems even more disconnected than he already is by definition (and by definition I mean because of the distance implied by fame: he is famous and they are not). Isn’t this the tragedy and the burden, the curse and the cross, that today’s stars are obliged to bear? There’s no way back and now technology is making the normal even more distant, more obscure.

And look at the people behind Davids: they are not looking at him, but have instead diverted their gaze to the photo, the image of him, on the phone. The copy of the man seems more real to them than the man standing in front of them. (This reminds me of one of my favorite books, Simulacra and Simulation, by French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard, published in 1981, in which he writes about hyperreality, the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a situation of reality, specifically in technologically advanced postmodern societies).

Also worth mentioning is  the kid on the left, wearing a skeleton Halloween costume. He doesn’t seem to care about Davids. To me, the kid functions as the deus ex machina of this picture, silently speaking to us as a God like figure, saying: “Nobody can transcend life, even if you are a world famous football player.”

In response to accusations of using performance enhancing drugs, a long time ago, Davids called his body his temple. His body has indeed always looked like a symbol of physical perfection. Davids still works hard to keep it that way. But now, for the brief moment that was captured in the photo, Davids looks old and tired. Frozen mortality. Is that what he sees in the image of himself? Or…?

The fan taking the photo is wearing a cap engraved with the bold white letters that spell out the word, LEGEND. It is as if Davids is being offered a choice, a choice to see himself as a former pro-football player or as the one that’s exactly the same as us. Just flesh and blood.

To me, Davids seems more reflective than he has ever been before, but he still holds back a bit too: his interpretation of his own mirror image can go either way.

And what about our interpretation?

Before writing this essay, Thomas Rijsman interviewed Remko de Waal, the photographer, about his process taking this picture.