It’s been over 15 years since journalist Mark Simpson dubbed David Beckham ‘the biggest metrosexual in Britain’, permanently embedding the England playmaker in the battle over Just What Makes Men Manly, Anyway which has been fought ever since one monkey hit another with a femur in the first bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When Simpson first invented the term in 1993, it was meant to define single men with disposable incomes and high tastes in fashion and beauty, who were perhaps more interested in their own appearance than whatever their choice of romantic partners may have been.
At the height of the turn-of-the-century culture wars on both sides of the Atlantic, Beckham was a Rorschach test: either you had no issue with the free kick phenom’s interest in high fashion, or he was the latest step away from your dad’s era of Hard Men who went studs-up in the mud and bought each other beer afterwards.
Years later, Simpson would declare Cristiano Ronaldo a ‘spornosexual’, an even more convoluted term meant to represent the Real Madrid star’s desire to be praised for his athletic build rather than his athletic achievements.
What would Simpson say about Marouane Fellaini’s recent photo shoot and interview for GQ Style, in which the Manchester United defender is delicately photographed by David Hughes with his famous afro shaped in Mickey Mouse ears?
Quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Modern athletes are not only taking an increasing role in crafting their own image, but actively rejecting attempts by others to define their image. It’s a trend that can be seen not only in other sports, but also in other creative fields, such as hip-hop, which have recently begun to redefine the meaning and importance of masculinity in their communities.
“I think it’s easy for them to portray me as an aggressive player, but I’m not,” Fellaini told GQ. “I try to play my game, I try my best to recover the ball quickly: that’s my job. Try to be better all the time, to give my best for the team, for the club. I always want to improve.”
It’s a statement he could have made to any publication, never mind one of the world’s foremost men’s fashion magazines. That he chose GQ, and that it’s not really a big deal, is perhaps the best indication yet that we are willing to let footballers be footballers, and, more importantly, to let the players themselves decide what that means.