In the brilliantly-written epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, exists a secret society of assassins known as the Faceless Men. This ancient order, both by incredible skills gained by years of practice and magic, are able to disguise themselves in any manner necessary in order to gain access to their target; literally (Warning: Game of Thrones Season 2 Spoiler Alert) changing faces in the blink of an eye.
Recently I was entered in a GroupMe with a small network of members of what might best be called “soccer black twitter”. After a few hours of back-and-forth jibes about team allegiances, current form, manager failures with infinite jokes threaded throughout, one of the members remarked that my “voice” in the GroupMe was a shadow of what I portray on my public social media profile.
Just a few months ago, an Outside the Lines documentary by the name of “The N Word” aired, centering around the use regulation of the word “nigga” in the NFL, and its usage in culture as a whole. Just the latest in a long discourse about the word in black culture, and a new spike in the pulse of an issue that has spilled out into the mainstream.
When I am in private, I say the word “nigga”. I very rarely say it in public. I make a conscious effort not to say it in front of white people I don’t know personally, simply because I don’t want the issue to even be raised. I can count the number of times my parents have said the word in front of me on two hands. Their gentle admonishment at my use of the word leads me to believe they’re not against the use of the word, but that they believe in this new future, I probably shouldn’t use it. For me, the word is not a symbol of years of slavery, racial inequality and pain, but rather a term that feels like the freedom to say what I want and have it be my own, alongside my culture. However, because of my awareness how uncomfortable the word can make many different types of people, as well as the issues that sometimes arise with its use, I limit it only to trusted and pre-vetted circles.
I am a man of many faces. Part of what enables most educated black men who are comfortable in mainstream, white-dominated society is their ability to have many faces. My persona in the midst of an all-white Davidson College crowd will most likely not be the exact same persona I have in front of a mostly minority crowd at a Black Student Coalition party, or as I am with my parents and my extended family. My voice on Twitter is not the same as my voice in the soccer twitter GroupMe. This ability to seamlessly flow between cultures and situations because of my diverse interests and experiences is what got me, and a host of other successful black men before me and beside me, in this position today.
Now what, you might ask, does this have to do with Yaya Touré?
Yaya Touré is a man of many faces. Plucked from virtual obscurity in Monaco (before the Dmitry Rybolovlev euros), the only information the general football fan was that he happened to be Kolo Touré’s younger brother. Deployed in the destroyer role in front of Barcelona’s back four, the world was allowed scarce a hint of the marauding tank that patrols Manchester City’s midfield today. After losing his place in the starting XI to one Sergio Busquets, Touré Yaya’s future looked bleak, playing sparingly in the early stages of the 2008-09 season. However, cometh the hour, cometh the man, and in the 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United, mighty Yaya Touré, this time fielded in the heart of the Barcelona defense, helped lead his side to a 2-0 victory and the European title.
Unsatisfied with his Barcelona shackling, the club confirmed that Touré would be allowed to leave in the summer, and Manchester City duly obliged his wishes, signing him to a 5-year contract and shelling out £24 million for his services. Once donning the sky blue of Manchester’s “other” club, Touré immediately went about showing the reason he desired to showcase his true talent in all its awesomeness. Transforming seemingly overnight from a bustling holding midfielder, cleaning up messes and dutifully dumping the ball off to Xavi and Iniesta, Touré revealed himself to be an unstoppable tank, capable of feats of impossible combinations of athletic, languid brilliance on the ball to absolute pearlers from every angle. From his first season to the present, Touré’s presence in the English Premier League has been a treasure for all those privileged to watch him week in and week out. A man whose most excellent face is that of an incredibly gifted midfielder whose very existence almost defines “box to box”; his main rival for that definition stands in the form of Chilean dynamo Arturo Vidal.
Most recently, Touré’s claims that proper recognition for his brilliance has only come from the fans, rather than official recognition because of his African heritage caused waves in the footballing community. Was the reason Pep Guardiola solely opted to field Yaya Touré in a holding midfield role one motivated by a belief that African players are typically best suited to more restricted and defensive roles? Is his (and any other African’s) astounding failure to win an EPL Player of the Month in the last two seasons a result of a European preconception of African talent? What face does the English Premier League see when they look at Yaya Touré? A brilliant, multi-talented athletic masterpiece, or just another very good African player?
For me, Yaya Touré, and many others, having many faces is a special talent, and a life-changing skill. For Yaya Touré however, the faces he projects may be unseen by those who aren’t willing to open their eyes; he is an inadvertent Faceless Man.
This article originally featured on Soccer Without Limits