This week's inductee to The Cult was an all-action defensive midfielder who spoke his mind, didn't take any shit, and became an icon in wraparound goggles. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Pitbull
Iconic footballers have to stand out as truly unique, psychologically and physically, amidst a plethora of quality. Thus, the name Edgar Steven Davids screams 'cool' more than any other. There are myriad Snapchat showboaters nowadays, pimped-up with sleeve tattoos and mohawks, who opt for superficiality over breaking a sweat (looking at you, "Super" Mario).
In the golden age of Serie A, though, your substance had to equal your style – and Davids had plenty of both. Defensive midfielders are normally plodding, Claude Makelele-type water-carriers, ably recycling possession and screening the back line without much attacking contribution. But after growing up on the streets of Amsterdam, and being educated at Ajax's esteemed Youth Academy, Davids mastered technique and close control as well as tactical awareness, resulting in a dynamic all-round battler heralded by manager Marcello Lippi as Juventus' "one-man engine room". The Dutchman was the rare hybrid of a holder, a ball-winner, and a box-to-box player, combining the best of all three.
Physically small but blessed with the boundless energy to launch countless counterattacks, the sight of Davids combatively intercepting the ball, zipping forwards with quick footwork and threading a through-pass to Alessandro Del Piero or Zinedine Zidane was extremely common around the turn of the millennium. With Zidane in particular, the silk-and-steel juxtaposition of these two perfectly matched midfield icons was as effective as it was attractive. 'Zizou' was a graceful fantasista of divine technique and gliding gait; Davids provided balance as his antithesis, a snarling, aggressive destroyer who found the same visceral satisfaction in breaking up the play as the Frenchman did in creating it.
Davids was never a thuggish player, but a darker side to his competitiveness often revealed itself, especially on international duty. Irascible and outspoken, traits seemingly ingrained in Dutch players, Davids was sent home from Euro '96 after an interview in which he accused Holland manager Guus Hiddink of having his head "up some players' arses". Davids disgraced himself again in 2001, when he tested positive for banned steroid nandrolone. He was suspended by FIFA from qualification for the 2002 World Cup, his absence a major reason for Holland failing to reach the tournament. Davids' tendency to self-sabotage was also frequently expressed on the pitch. His belligerent playing style brought injuries and suspensions that prevented him from reaching the level of success which his singular talent and determination would otherwise have brought him.
Point of Entry: High Maintenance
Quite rightly dubbed 'The Pitbull' by his then manager Louis van Gaal, Davids was a key member of the famous Ajax side which won the 1995 Champions League against holders AC Milan, and lost the following season's final to another of Davids' future opponents, Juventus. Davids and Clarence Seedorf, another enterprising Dutch midfielder of Afro-Surinamese origin, then sought transfers, beginning a strongly interlinked future.
Davids lasted only a miserable half-season at Milan, before moving on to revive his career at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Exceptional individual displays here saw him first establish himself as midfield general for both Juventus and Holland, and then score a crucial last-minute winner for the Dutch national side having bossed the game against Yugoslavia at France '98. Now dreaded both literally and metaphorically, and recognised universally as an opponent to be reckoned with, it was at this point in his life that Davids first donned the distinctive eyewear that will forever frame our vision of him.
After an eye injury sustained to his optic nerve developed into chronic open-angle glaucoma, Davids underwent career-threatening surgery to prevent sight loss. Much like U2 frontman Bono – a fellow glaucoma sufferer – Davids could not have continued playing unless he came up with a way to shield his eyes from both physical contact and the powerful glare of stadium floodlights. And his choice of wraparound protective goggles – tinted in a fetching shade of Oranje to match his national strip, of course – had previously only been sported by snowboarders and NBA stars. Instantly, those goggles made him the most recognisable footballer on the planet.
The ocular precaution inadvertently changed into a fashion statement, the official Edgar Davids trademark. Players often have a visual signature: Socrates had his headband, Cantona his upturned collar, Henry rocked above-the-knee socks, Pirlo grew that sage-like beard. Not many look like they could DJ at a warehouse rave after the match, though. Whether seen televised, on Channel 5's Football Italia highlights, or virtually, on FIFA 2003 – Davids appeared as cover star next to Roberto Carlos and Ryan Giggs – the surname printed on Juve's 26 shirt was unnecessary. Everyone idolised that unmistakable figure in black-and-white stripes and colourful shades. The left-footed canine who executed driving runs and bone-crunching tackles, dreads oscillating side-to-side as he hounded Lazio or Parma off his private lawn with rabid tenacity and a terrier-like mien.
Edgar Davids: a futurist sportsman with a modernist approach. A bespectacled street fighter, the Boba Fett of the beautiful game, basically just a leather trenchcoat and a Beretta away from being cast as one of Morpheus' cyberpunk guerrillas from The Matrix. Nike knew this telegenic sci-fi look was perfect for endorsement and featured Davids in their ingenious 2002 'Scorpion KO' advert. He played 3-on-3, red Mercurial Vapours flashing, man-marking other playground names like Luis Figo and Patrick Vieira; advertising a brand, but above all, promoting himself.
The six years spent in Turin would prove to be the greatest of Davids' career, powering the Old Lady to three league titles. This was followed by a loan move to friend Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona in 2004, which partially incited their comeback as La Liga's powerhouse, a season back at the San Siro with Internazionale, and then an experience of English football as a Tottenham fan favourite. It's fascinating to note how closely Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for one, has followed in Davids' trailblazing footsteps (Ajax, Italy's 'Big Three', Barça and finally the Premier League). And with his nomadic wanderings, spiky persona and unique appearance, the lense-clad trendsetter has single-handedly established a template for every volatile maverick who has swaggered out of the tunnel in his wake. Think Ronaldinho's flowing locks, think Berbatov's insouciant moodiness, for example. There are dozens more.
The Moment: 28 May 2003, Old Trafford, The First All-Italian Champions League Final
An hour into this tense stalemate between Juve and AC Milan, before suffering an injury, Davids' outstanding performance was lauded by the BBC coverage as 'inspirational... hungrier and far more influential' than that of his compatriot Seedorf. But Juventus' talisman reluctantly limped off, watching the remainder from the bench as two watertight defences maintained the deadlock, meaning his penalty shootout jinx was about to continue.
Davids had missed his effort in the 1996 final, and was prevented from partaking during losses at France '98 and Euro 2000. What must he have thought here, then, when (according to Lippi) some of his high-profile team-mates pathetically "refused to take penalties"? His inadequate replacement, Marcelo Zalayeta, inevitably missed, allowing Andriy Shevchenko to clinch the half-hearted affair for the Rossoneri. In truth, Davids' substitution probably didn't alter the result. He may well have been denied from twelve yards (as Seedorf was) or scored in vain, but his mentality would never allow apprehension to outweigh responsibility. He would have been the first to step up to the spot.
The illustrious Seedorf became the first player to lift a European crown with three different clubs. Davids, for all his personal accolades, never added to Ajax's Class of '95 triumph. Still, there's a key difference between these two all-time midfield greats: Seedorf was professional, Davids was iconic. Only one of those is an exciting, endearing thing to be.
He may have faded away into lower-league football, but Davids is fondly remembered – through rose-tinted glasses, appropriately enough – as the very definition of a cult player, one who would look equally at home in a music video for The Prodigy as in a Champions League final. There's more to Edgar Davids than a pair of techno goggles, a dreadlocked ponytail and a nickname that epitomises his dogged, never-say-die conviction. But those accessories represent his uniquely memorable identity. The abstract image of The Pitbull transcended calcio to create a legendary cultural aesthetic surpassing that of any of his contemporaries: it's where the individual became an icon.
"You know what? I'm fucking Edgar Davids." (Edgar Davids, speaking on Sky Sports' Goals on Sunday, 2012)