The Square Ball Week: Platinum Bratwurst

In Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

After every game, win lose or draw, the social media team at Dino Lamberti’s Fair Play Agency whips out the video editing software and gets to work on a recording of their client Ezgjan Alioski’s latest game.

With slo-mo effects, flashes, and a thumping Eurodance soundtrack, Gjanni’s best moments are clipped together for Twitter and pushed out to the internet. “Including Leeds’ only goal,” FPA tweeted after the Brentford match, “A great header to make it 1-1.”

A goal is always good to watch. Among the other highlights were a tame snapshot, a decent bit of control, and a tackle. The video is only fifty-one seconds long, so there’s no time to include Alioski being subbed off for Jay-Roy Grot, although that moment might have alerted the social media team with whoever looks after #JRG11, hoping for their first tweetable highlight of 2017. Their hopes were dashed, along with ours.

Alioski always dutifully retweets these things, adding a comment of his own: “My best moments & my goal against Brentford in the last Championship game with Leeds before the international break. #ea10 #lufc #mot”. The MOT was probably optimistic after the Brentford result; after a 3-1 defeat, nobody with a literal or metaphorical ‘Side Before Self’ tattoo over their heart was in the mood to see a player pushing his own goal ahead of the three conceded. (Question: when did Andy Lonergan’s agents give up video highlights as a bad idea?)

Alioski soldiers on though, regularly uploading graphics featuring photos of him volleying a ball or sliding into a tackle while engaging in an intergalactic war, if the explosions of gold sparks around him are a guide. They all have slogans like ‘GEARING UP’, ‘DIG DEEP’ and ‘NATIONAL PRIDE’, this last one when he’s turning out for Macedonia, when he adds some behind the scenes photos to the mix: team dinners, training sessions, selfies with the squad.

He’s a hostage to it, although I’m not implying that Fair Play Agency are holding him hostage. I’m sure their contract is very fair, and this obligation is standard. But it isn’t doing many favours for a player who has been out of form at Leeds after a promising start, at a club where ‘Side Before Self’ is written above the entrance to the stadium, in a part of the world where showing off has traditionally been frowned upon. In Yorkshire terms, Alioski is showing all the signs of thinking he’s summat when he’s nowt. And even if he is summat, that’s no reason to go around acting like summat. Acting like you’re summat’s the fast way to being nowt.

Welcome to Yorkshire, Gjanni. You could feel a bit sorry for him, getting the weekly social media pack through from his agency, checking that his best backheels are in the highlights video, that his seventies sci-fi space-witch hairdo is on platinum point in the graphics, dutifully uploading them on Twitter and social media, and getting told to fuck off by everyone.

I wonder how it goes down in Macedonia, though. The bind of Alioski is that he speaks to two audiences these days; to Leeds United fans, whose ardour has turned to suspicion of their new player; and Ezgjan Alioski fans, back home in Macedonia, where he is one of the highest profile international players the young republic has produced.

Veteran Goran Pandev is still the undisputed star, formerly of Lazio, Inter and Napoli, still playing in Serie A for Genoa at the age of 34. Aleksandar Trajkovski was another Serie A player, at Palermo, until they got relegated and signed Giuseppe Bellusci. Ferhan Hasani made four appearances in three seasons at Wolfsburg before leaving for Brondby, then back to Macedonia with Shkendija; Nikola Gjorgjev, a twenty year old midfielder, followed Alioski’s route out of Switzerland this summer, leaving Grasshoppers for FC Twente in Holland, where he’s made a handful of appearances so far.

Only Ezgjan Alioski is in England, in what purports to be the among the best leagues in Europe, playing for what is definitely the biggest club in Europe; and in Macedonia, his star is ascendant, as is the national team’s. They’ve just had their best ever attempt at qualifying for the World Cup, including a draw and narrow 3-2 defeat to Italy, a competitive 2-1 defeat to Spain, and a famous win away in Israel. Over summer Alioski watched “every single game” of Macedonia’s first appearance at the U21 European Championships, and says he is, “Already looking forward to the Euro 2020 qualifying stages.”

After a draw with Albania, Alioski drew approving headlines not only for his performance on the pitch, but afterwards: a journalist began asking him questions in English, and he insisted she speak in Macedonian, “A beautiful gesture by the Macedonian footballer of Lids Junajted, who tonight was one of the best at the Macedonian representative,” according to Infosport.mk. Euro 2020 will expand to 24 teams, and the target for Alioski is clear: be among the leading players of Macedonia’s first appearance at an international tournament.

And be a star. I can’t tell from here what celebrity status or otherwise Alioski has in Macedonia, but Infosport eagerly reported on his goal against Brentford, and the audience for his highlights reels may be more forgiving back home, for whom the only other player to watch in England is Dejan Iliev, their U21 goalkeeper playing in the reserves at Arsenal. It’s between Iliev and Alioski to be only the fifth Macedonian in the Premier League, an achievement that must be worth an endorsement or two in Skopje.

Assuming they can prove to potential sponsors they have a profile high enough. Iliev has a couple of thousand followers on Twitter, but Brand: EA10 has a full ten thousand, and even if half of those are disgruntled Leeds fans who are tired of his self-promotion, there’s another half lapping up the exploits of a hero. Do kids in Skopje run around the playgrounds pulling off the latest Alioski tricks they’ve seen in his highlight videos on Twitter, leaping for bouncing balls to head them past flailing keepers? I hope so. He’s got more moves than Pandev these days, even if his club team aren’t winning.

None of which makes his self-promotion any easier for Leeds fans to bear, although it might make it easier to understand that Alioski is not speaking to us when he bigs himself up. It’s something to consider when praising or condemning the gang of mysteries Victor Orta assembled during the summer transfer window. Their lives outside their Leeds United shirts aren’t always immediately understandable.

Take, at the other end of the scale, Felix Wiedwald. In an interview with a German website a couple of weeks ago, he talked about how life in Leeds was going for him; or life in Harrogate, more exactly, where he’d ended up after several months spent searching for somewhere to live. Another unnamed English Leeds player of no fixed abode had moved in with him, and now Felix had his heart set on domestic bliss — although his wife had just returned to Bremen in preparation for the birth of their child. He was attempting to fill the gap of homesickness with food: he’d found German bread in a supermarket, but had to send home for bratwurst. The arrival of good sausage wasn’t all it could have been, though; unpacking his grill, he found he didn’t have an adaptor to plug it in, so he had to cook them in a pan.

Such is the life of the wandering footballer. Then, there’s the football, as we’ve seen. As a goalkeeper, “If you are touched in Germany just a bit, it is immediately a foul,” says Felix. “Here the defenders have to pave the way for you to go out at all. At corners and free-kicks, your arm is held so you do not come up — and it’s almost never whistled.” Seeking help, Felix has been calling Gerhard Tremmel, a goalkeeper from Bremen playing at Swansea. “You should always have your arms up so that nobody can push them down,” Gerhard told him.

Small details, but if you’ve been wondering this season why Wiedwald hasn’t looked stronger when coming for corners and crosses, the answers are all there: he’s never had to play by these rules before. Football’s the world game in a hyperconnected global age, but nonetheless goalkeeping ain’t the same from the Bundesliga to the Championship, and after a hard afternoon of having your arms pinned and bruised while the ball flies past you, you can’t even grill your sausages the way you want to, or even have a beer. Felix likes to have a beer after a game, but the other players won’t join him, because they can’t only drink one with him. “They told me, once they have drunk one beer, then it would have to be ten!”

It’s not the way Wiedwald expected this season to pan out, not least because he expected to still be Werder Bremen’s number one, until the coach bought a new keeper and told him to go. Now he spends his Saturday nights in Harrogate, trying to make smalltalk across the language barrier with his flatmate, pushing his burnt sausages in the bin and sipping his one lonely beer, before phoning long distance to his pregnant wife and telling her not to bother checking Twitter, there won’t be a flashy highlights video like Gjanni’s agent makes for him. There’ll probably just be a load of people slagging her husband off for sitting on the bench the wrong way.

It’s enough to tear your heart out, unless your heart is filled with sentiments like, ‘He earns enough, so why should I care?’ The logical conclusion of that argument is a team full of mercenaries whose only motivation is their bank account, fair payback for such a void of empathy. Felix Wiedwald has it better than many, but if he wasn’t a bit down in the dumps about how his life is going, that would be the reason for us to worry.

I’ve had this sympathetic view of foreign players being expected to be instant hits in England since reading about Harry Redknapp taking over at Portsmouth, when he found a squad full of imported players who couldn’t communicate with each other, and packed them all off to a nearby language school for a crash course in Football English. It wasn’t just about integrating them on the pitch; Redknapp was appalled that the players had been bought in from all over the world, dumped on the south coast and left to get on with it. That helps nobody.

Whether Gjanni Alioski’s highlights videos help anybody is another matter, but they’re a reminder that footballers exist in three dimensions, living multiple lives. We see the Alioski of Leeds United but we don’t see the Alioski of Macedonia, although social media now means that the actions of one bring reactions from people who only know the other. Who even knows how the third Alioski is getting on, and whether he’s getting enough cabbage rolls and turli tava stews sent from home; although it has been noticeable on social media that Samu Saiz, Pablo Hernandez and their partners seem to have taken Gjanni under their wings.

Maybe these are the highlights videos we need to see to thaw the frost that has crept into our relationship with Leeds United’s new players. Gjanni playing multilingual scrabble with Pablo and Matuesz. Felix unwrapping the three-pin adaptor that will bring bratwurst back into his life, then a week later handing round the cigars to celebrate the birth of Felix Junior. Jay-Roy getting through a doorway in his digs without banging his head for the first time, and high-fiving the ceiling. Pontus teaching Pawel the English for ‘hårklippning’. And whatever else they need to help them get through the day, and to make it easier to focus on the football. That’s what they’re here to do, but we shouldn’t imagine it’s all they’re doing. ◉

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(feature image by Jim Ogden)