Think of a Spanish player? Choose another? Ok, now choose one who doesn’t play for Barcelona, Real Madrid, or an English club? The player I am looking for has already scored at Euro 2012, albeit thanks to a generous assist from Andres Iniesta. Seven years ago, Jesus Navas suffered a bout of homesickness so severe that his Father and Brother had to take him home to Sevilla from the training camp in Huelva. For those with adequate Spanish geography, Huelva is in the same region as Sevilla. This is akin to leaving a camp in Leicester because you are homesick for Coventry.
Jesus Navas is a remarkable player, and has a scarcely believable story. In the overly masculine world of football, anxiety is a taboo. Football players are supposed to be robotic clones, speaking in predictable speak. Any sign of a perceived weakness is seized upon and held against you. Sadly, this is fast becoming a mere microcosm of wider society. Despite living in a world in which one in four adults suffer from a type of mental illness, silence is encouraged, whether this is as a result of fear of expectation.
In 2010, Jesus Navas replaced Pedro Rodruguez after 60 minutes of the World Cup final, and with the subsequent Spanish defeat of Netherlands, the rise was complete. It wasn’t always this way. In 2007, Sevilla had agreed to sell him to Chelsea, but the player rejected the move as he couldn’t manage to live outside of the wonderful city of Seville. The initial homesickness manifested into a far worse condition, a chronic anxiety which compromised any hope he had of representing the national team. Spending several days in Murcia with the under-21 team brought on an attack which put Jesus Navas’ dreams on hold. Murcia is only several hours away from Sevilla.
Yet, he spent six weeks in South Africa, and is half way through a tournament in Poland. Realising that he needed to seek help for his condition, Jesus Navas received therapy. Anxiety is often scorned at by wider society. It can strike anyone, often without warning, and can be a major obstruction to everyday life. Anxiety attacks often mimic heart attack symptoms, with a vastly increased heartbeat and pulse rate, coupled with an overwhelming sense of trepidation. Sadly, two of his then Sevilla team mates, Andres Palop and Enzo Maresca, were hugely dismissive of the condition, commenting to the press that Jesus Navas should ‘man up’.
Would a footballer with a broken leg be told the same? Of course not, as it is physically impossible to compete at the highest level with a physical condition. It is exasperating, therefore, that psychological issues are not viewed with the same severity. Thankfully, the rest of the Sevilla staff was supportive. Palop, a reserve Spanish goalkeeper when Spain triumphed in Euro 2008, was left out of the World Cup squad just as Jesus Navas was being included.
Spain has a wonderful squad, and it is a squad that is greatly enriched for the presence of Jesus Navas. Whilst they have been criticised for trying to score the perfect goal through intricate passing, the Sevilla star adds a different dimension. His direct pace and skill often produces an end product, and whilst he isn’t considered for the starting line-up, he is often the first substitute made by Vicente Del Bosque. Considering that three years ago the player himself was saying that he ‘has to be calm and take slow steps’ just to be considered for the national squad, this is remarkable progress.
The most intriguing footballers are infinitely flawed. In most examples this is down to lifestyle choices, but can there truly be a defence for an athlete who wastes their career through drink, drugs and sex? John Terry certainly isn’t a flawed genius because he feels a sense of superiority over women; he is just a reprehensible character. Dennis Bergkamp was the most elegant footballer of his generation, yet this fear of flying never diminished.
Jesus Navas is in a similar mode, but he is someone who has chosen to be honest about his anxiety. This makes him more endearing, more human. There are no doubt countless other footballers who have underlying conditions that they are unwilling to admit, paralysed by a fear of being ridiculed by a culture that still struggles to fully embrace difference. The rise of Jesus Navas from homesick teenager to World Cup winner is a heart-warming story, but the real battle is the one that he is thankfully winning. Like any mental illness, it is a lifelong battle that will never fully dissipate, but for now, Spain’s hopes could well rest on the winger from Sevilla.