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From daggers and hearts to plant life and teardrops, body art is an ever-increasing trend with players, but actual football tattoos remain for the fans
Words by: Alex Anderson
When your hear that the offices of the German Football Association have been raided by police and tax authorities, just as the bathroom mirror reflects the words “Deutscher Fussball-Bund” on your bare upper arm, you question the wisdom of football tattoos. Especially when our world is now flooded with questionably tattooed footballers.
Approaching 30, the new millennium and a new job, I suddenly – and ridiculously – feared becoming a corporate monster. I wanted a permanent reminder of my gentle, caring, football-bore side. I’d just seen Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, in which recovering Glaswegian alcoholics redeem themselves through football played in replica Germany strips. Finally someone else understood that, like the blues, post-war Germany bore its scars and made them into something beautiful – its national football team. I headed for a new age tattoo parlour in Glasgow’s West End.
Receiving a small Chelsea crest on his arm made undercover investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre faint on the BBC. He’s far braver than me so was probably improvising to maintain the mood of his hooligan exposé. But it reinforced the myth that football tattoos equal aggression.
Indeed tattoos were once only for dockers, miners and those involved in seriously hard industry. Joey Jones of Wales and Liverpool stood out in the 1970s and 1980s as the only famous player I’d seen with more than just freckles on his forearms. With half the population still regarding footballers as effete escapees from working-class life, his seedy tattoo parlour staples – daggers into hearts enfolded in scripts and suchlike – visually compensated his wiry frame.
Jones was a fearsome competitor. However, in Bob Paisley’s ultra-modern Liverpool team his body art was incongruous, as it would be now – but only because it’s rendered so sparingly. After Brylcreem, nose clips and socks over the knees, the latest trend among top-flight footballers seems to be long sleeves; either the Under Armour lycraish versions worn beneath short-sleeved club shirts, or the decorative melange of tattoos from artisan boutique studios, covering all skin from neck to wrist.
It’s now almost compulsory for any self-styled “edgy” character, such as Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher, Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths or Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo, to sport these veritable body tapestries. Birds of prey, doves of peace, fish, stars and clocks set at the time of family births and deaths – sometimes even the faces of family, political leaders or religious icons; the set piece tattoos merely begin the look. Like a half-grown ponytail or burgeoning moustache, the first clue a player is spending hours under the needle is a meandering ink outline on the arm appealing for offside. This will eventually be infilled with exotically stylised plant life, waves, clouds, flames
Perhaps, as football becomes more athletic and players skinnier, it provides atavistic reassurance that they’re still warriors. The sleeve tattoo certainly mimics the comprehensive markings of US prison gangs. But the real explanation is that it’s just trendy. Kevin Keegan sanctioned the perm for late 1970s dressing rooms. Similarly, David Beckham brought extreme tattooing through the various cultural filters from bona fide fashion to footballing vogue. What was once a barely acceptable form of self-harm is now a confused attempt at both art collecting and self-expression.
The forearms of Stoke striker Marko Arnautovic bear something resembling waves. His hair’s in a nascent topknot so I assume he has some sort of Samurai fixation. I’ll be wrong but not very. Despite them decorating players from all over the world, in polyglot leagues, the unifying themes of these tattoos are “kind of foreign”, faux archaic and pseudo-spirituality. For the most part, actual football tattoos are for fans.
I’ve committed infinitely more to supporting Rangers and Scotland than £50 and a few hours being injected in a chair. Like having “mum” emblazoned on the epidermis, tattoos often replace real love rather than prove it. Back in 1999 I wanted my own silly pseudo-spirituality commemorated – my personal equivalent of the Mauri patterns and gothic-fonted Latin epigrams then all the rage: my German national team crest is small and remains unaccompanied. But the blissfully relaxing nature of the process – acupuncture in extremis – explains why today’s health-conscious footballer enjoys marathon sessions in tattoo studios rather than pubs.
I climbed the corporate ladder to the rank of data inputter. The only attention my body art ever received came at the office five-a-sides. Another temp noticed my tiny Teutonic eagle circled by German text and asked if I was a neo-Nazi. It was then I realised I should really have got Ken Loach’s face done underneath it.