Last Saturday, Manchester United beat Wigan 4-0 in a run-of-the-mill Premier League game. Wigan are a small, slightly bizarre club from the north of England. Manchester United also play in the north, but they have more Azerbaijani fans than Wigan do season-ticket holders. This is football, the most monetized sport around, and Manchester United were playing at home. Wigan never had a prayer.
What made this game worth watching, what made it Saturday’s most endearing match – especially in contrast to John Terry’s return to Loftus Road, Anton Ferdinand’s childish non-handshake, and the dismal 0-0 draw that followed – was the shy-looking redhead who opened the scoring (a tap-in) and the almost-40-year-old whose darting runs and incisive dribbling troubled the Wigan defense all afternoon. If you don’t know where I’m going with this – if the names Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, or, as they’re commonly referred to, “giggsandscholes” (one syllable), don’t ring a bell – then either you’ve been living in a cave for the last 20 years or you don’t have cable. (Which is worse? I’ll leave that for you to decide.)
Scholes is 37 and Giggs is 38, but their exact ages stopped mattering a long time ago. At some point – 2007 maybe – both players entered the “autumn” of their careers, and once you arrive in the autumn of your career, you’re stuck there until you retire. In footballing terms, a 34 year-old midfielder is just as “old” as a 40-year-old striker. It’s of no consequence that Scholes has made “only” 700 Manchester United appearances (#700 came against Wigan) to Giggs’ 911, or that he has already retired once. Giggs and Scholes are barely distinguishable from each other; they’re a footballing package, the players who have always played for Manchester United and will always play for Manchester United, even when Ferguson’s gone, even when the magic of “that night in Barcelona” has faded from living memory. They’re not veterans – it would be churlish to call them that. They’re just kind of, you know, there, and there is where they’re supposed to be.
Whenever Giggs scores a league goal – he is the only player in history to have scored in every season of the Premier League – commentators describe him as “experienced” or “utterly professional” or, and this one really drives me nuts, “a great servant to the club” (First of all, thanks to Mr. Bosman, footballers stopped being servants a long time ago. And second, any cliché, no matter how trivial, that casts a human being as some sort of peasant-serf who mindlessly does things because a rich white guy tells him to shouldn’t be an accepted part of our vernacular.) When Scholes nets, as he did against Wigan, United fans break into song: “Paul Scholes, he scores goals!”
Scholes and Giggs are as ubiquitous as Manchester United itself. They get the biggest cheers during pre-season open training. Even Liverpool fans don’t dare boo them. They are football in England.
Ryan Giggs made his Manchester United debut in 1987 and he’s never looked back. Apart from a notorious party at Lee Sharpe’s house and an all-too-public sex scandal last year, Giggs has stayed on the field and out of the papers. His statistics are incredible. In 2008, he broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time appearance record – in the Champions League final, which, for the record, United won on penalties. At 35, Giggs became the oldest player ever to win the official PFA Player of the Year Award. He has won 12 Premier League titles, more than anyone else. Coolest of all, he attributes his longevity to a strict yoga regimen.
Paul Scholes is pretty good, too. He first appeared for United in 1994, scoring twice against Port Vale in the League Cup, a competition whose constantly changing title (Milk Cup, Carling Cup, Capital One Cup) is a fairly accurate reflection of its footballing importance. Nevertheless, the Port Vale match served as a perfect jumping-off-point for Scholes’ career. Ten Premier League titles later, the League Cup doesn’t seem so bad after all.
Scholes has always confounded the British media. He has a luxuriant touch and a Pirlo-esque range of passing. Xavi and Iniesta, arguably the two most talented midfielders of all time, insist that Scholes is their favorite player. Yet he once admitted to supporting Oldham Athletic, a small Manchester club that was never was, and never will be, relevant to top-level football. Moreover, he is pathologically incapable of talking about himself. He hardly ever answers post-match questions. A series of England managers benched him in favor of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, two players who happen to be pathologically incapable of playing together, or, in Gerrard’s case, of playing at all. Scholes retired from international play in 2004, but only recently has the media started to lobby for an unlikely, and probably impossible, comeback.
Giggs had an international career. Sort of. No one likes to talk about it: it may not be an elephant in the room, but it’s at least a smallish hippo. Giggs is Welsh, of course. He never played in a European Championships or a World Cup. Ultimately, that’s what will stop him from being remembered as one of the greatest of all time. His trophy haul is incredible, but Wales are rubbish.
It’s been a rough week for English football. An official report on the Hillsborough disaster described in detail how the Yorkshire police orchestrated a mass cover-up that effectively placed the guilt for 96 deaths squarely on the victims themselves. Just days later, television cameras circled as Anton Ferdinand refused to shake John Terry’s hand. It was another petty episode in an increasingly embarrassing, and wholly unnecessary, melodrama.
Giggs (with the exception of his extramarital activity) and Scholes seem to float above all of those shenanigans. They play football. And that, after all, is kind of the point.