It’s the season of comebacks everywhere. Lee-Hesh, Kenny Dalglish, Yelena Isinbayeva, Ian Thorpe, Eric Cantona (and, amazingly, the New York Cosmos), Barack Obama...even Culture Club are planning a comeback album and tour.
Someone up there drew the line at Sourav Ganguly but hey, if Jason Krejza can return, who’s betting against the Prince of Kolkata?
No turning back: (left) Manchester United’s Gary Neville.Dismal finish: (right) Formula One’s Michael Schumacher.
The good news is that, so far, the returns have been fairly successful. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won the Chennai Open and reached the final of the Australian Open, cutting down on their chest-butting but ramping up their sledging (it was in Australia, after all). Dalglish, at the time of writing, had secured four wins on the trot, a run of form unheard of in Merseyside since, well, Dalglish’s previous stint at Anfield. Isinbayeva, who could have been a model, won her first tournament back in action. She never really lost the winning habit—she was part of the Russian team that won the rights to host the 2018 football World Cup.
Cantona’s case is less simple; he won’t be returning to the field, of course, but to the boardroom, as director of football at the Cosmos. That’s headline news for someone who quit the game cold turkey (and aged 31) in 1997, and, barring the occasional spot of beach football, has been seen largely on the silver screen.
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The Cosmos themselves? Well, they don’t have the star roll-call of their 1970s avatar but they still have Pele and an A-list of managers and administrators plotting a return to glory.
History hasn’t always been kind to those seeking a second shot; for every Martina Navratilova there’s a Bjorn Borg who—using wood in a metal age—lost each of his 10 return matches a decade after first calling it quits. For every Niki Lauda, there’s a Michael Schumacher, whose return last year after three years off the track saw him end the season without a win, pole position, podium or fastest lap. For every Muhammad Ali, who regained his title in 1974 seven years after it had been stripped from him, there’s the Ali who came back in 1980, a year after he’d retired, to be beaten by Larry Holmes.
Why do they do it? Some have unfinished business; they may have quit on a low and wanted to set the record straight. That seems to be the case with Isinbayeva; she won every medal and broke 27 world records but “quit” in 2009 after a string of poor performances. She still has one target—Sergei Bubka’s mark of 35 records. It’s true to some extent of Dalglish too; “King Kenny” won eight league titles with Liverpool as player and manager but since his departure in 1991—the strain of the Hillsborough stadium tragedy clearly taking its toll—the club has won none. Worse, they are in danger of being overtaken by Manchester United as the club with most overall league titles.
Perhaps it’s an awareness of what one does best; in the case of Lee and Hesh, there’s clearly a chemistry there that nine years of sniping and sideswiping hasn’t erased. They play doubles better with each other than with anyone else and, in the twilight of their careers, who’d deny them another shot at it?
For others, it’s the thrill of the chase, the realization that nothing can match the adrenalin rush of amphitheatre sport. Thorpe—“Thorpedo” in his prime—spoke of that when announcing his comeback. “I went to see the swimming venue for the London Olympics; it’s an extraordinary venue and I could taste it, which is something I hadn’t felt about swimming for a very, very long time.”
Some return to pay the bills, in the best rock-band tradition. There’s speculation that Thorpe himself was motivated as much by dwindling finances as by Olympian ideals; he’d be no different from the cricketers who keep one foot inside the boundary rope to pay for their Hollywood lifestyle.
The trick, perhaps, is to know when to go. For sportsmen, who have spent most of their lives perfecting one skill at the cost of almost all others, it is especially difficult to consider giving it up in the mid-30s (or even before). The fall into irrelevance or insignificance can be too swift and too traumatic for all but the most mature and steely of minds, which must process the knowledge that one has kicked one’s last through-ball, or hit one’s last putt, or bowled one’s last googly, though the muscles and bones are seemingly okay.
Sometimes it’s a eureka moment, as explained last week by Gary Neville, who pulled the plug, midway through the season, on a 20-year career at Manchester United. He said he made the decision during—not after, but during—a match on New Year’s Day, when he mistimed a tackle in the penalty box but got away with it. That was the moment, he said, when he knew his time was up.
The rest of us—writers, artists, sports men and women, politicians, rock stars—should be so lucky.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.