Football

​The Weird Truth About Sports Stars Meeting Their Idols

Have you heard the story about the footballer who met his boyhood idol, then stole his wife and got a tattoo of his kids?

by David Whelan
19 November 2015, 12:30pm

PA Images

Idols. Everyone's got one. Not everyone is one. We're not psychologists here at VICE Sports, so we can't go around telling you why a certain future sports star is drawn to a current one. But we can take a few educated guesses, such as the malleability of the childhood mind, the effects of television exposure, our human instinct to mimic. The usual.

The beautiful thing about idolatry, though, is that it's possible to join your idols in the sporting arena. That is: if you also happen to be freakishly talented at sport and in possession of a bloody single-mindedness mostly associated with infants who just want to listen to the same bedtime story over and over again.

Across the years, players have reached the pinnacle of sport and either surpassed their idols, and even competed against them. Sport is laden with a fascinating history of this – idols turned rivals, idols turned bitter enemies and, occasionally, idols turned friends.

Take, for example, Lionel Messi, who must have a hazy memory as he reckons two people are his idol – back in 2002, Messi declared that Pablo Aimar was "the player [he] most looked up to" but then this year called Brazil's Ronaldo the "most talented" player he'd ever seen.

Slippery tongued Lionel is either a master of words or a bit forgetful, but we're not here to discuss semantics, Leo, so we're going to take your original answer.

Messi and Aimar only went on to compete with each other once – in a 2-0 victory for Barcelona over Benfica in 2012. Being around your idols, though, can have a really amazing effect on anyone. At the end, Messi went over to Aimar all starry-eyed – he can hardly believe it.

It's rare to see such a star look so bewildered. This is the power of childhood admiration: this is what's so brilliant about idolising someone. No matter Messi's bewildering achievements in comparison to Aimar's, he still probably goes to bed under a Pablo Aimar quilt cover.

Sometimes things work out great, but other times sportsmen have come face to face with their childhood heroes and realised that, actually, this person is a bit of a shit. Or maybe the idol discovers you're a shit. This happens.

Two footballers from Argentina (why always them?) have recently been embroiled in a love triangle that feels straight from the script of Sky One's much-missed football drama Dream Team. Mauro Icardi, the now Inter Milan striker, once went to bed with Maxi Lopez's face plastered all over his bedroom walls. Now he goes to bed with Maxi Lopez's ex-wife, the actress Wanda Nara. It's a long story – one filled with the usual footballing mixture of intrigue, heartbreak and good-old-fashioned adultery.

In careers separated by nine years but nevertheless folded in together like taffy, Lopez and Icardi crossed paths twice: once at Barcelona, when Lopez was in the first team and Icardi just a wee bub, and then again at Sampdoria, when Lopez was signed on loan to start up front. They became fast friends, with Lopez often seen advising the young Icardi on and off the field. Eventually, Lopez's relationship with Nara broke down, and it was Icardi, to his horror, who had stolen her heart. There's even a popular phrase in Italy that goes a little like this: "Se tua moglie torna a casa tardi, se la bomba Mauro Icardi". We'll let you work that out yourself.

Nowadays, with Icardi at Milan and Lopez at Torino, whenever the two play it is playfully dubbed as 'the Wanda Derby' by the Italian press. And they don't shake hands, which is sad. Lopez was even sent off for throwing himself into a horror tackle against Icardi. Then Icardi bizarrely got tattoos of Lopez's three kids on his arm (an entirely normal thing to do, right?!)

What we're saying is: sometimes idolising someone can transform into a weird obsession with Greek tragedy undertones and, before you know it, you have pictures of kids sewn from the loins of someone who actively despises you on your actual flesh.

We blindside you this early on to make the point that sportsmen and kids aren't all that different. Both are, as we all know, liable to make really, really odd decisions. Perhaps you think there's not much in common between Liverpool centre-forward Daniel Sturridge and Mark William Calaway, aka The Undertaker, aka the dude our demographic research suggests you grew up watching on WWE. But you'd be wrong. Daniel "Millennial Man" Sturridge's childhood idol was none other than The Master of Pain himself. Yeah – all the expected folk, like Thierry Henry who played for Sturridge's boyhood team Arsenal, paled in comparison to the mythical lustre presented by a grown man in spandex.

Moving away from the fertile fields of football, briefly, to the world of motor racing. Ayrton Senna looms over the sport like a benign father, with his handsome features and spectacular ability, often inspiring swathes of young speed-demons to get into karts. To name everyone Senna inspired would be to write an article that is entirely a list of names – post-modern and very Roberto Bolano, sure, but ultimately as nourishing as a Sunday Roast with no meat.

Lewis Hamilton, the reigning Formula One champ, basically flinches every time someone mentions Senna's name, as if he grew up in a household where "Ayrton Senna" was a synonym for "boo".

Senna's reach was far and wide, including Brazilians such as F1 star Felipe Massa and Formula E ace Lucas Di Grassi. However not all Brazilians are in the Senna camp: reigning Formula E champion Nelson Piquet Jr idolised another three-time world champion – his father, Nelson Sr. You might think having a super-successful dad would be enough to ensure them the status of childhood hero, but that is not always the case – Formula E star Nicolas Prost's father is F1 legend Alain, but Nico's childhood idol is slightly unexpected.

"Childhood is quite long," Nicolas Prost tells us, explaining, "Your dad is your hero whoever you are and whatever he does. You copy your dad naturally, you don't even think about it. But if I had to name one childhood idol, I'd have to go for Alberto Tomba, the Italian skier. I liked his character, the way he always performed flat-out. His style. I met him twice, too, and he was a super nice guy. Skiing was a big part of my life from 7 to 14. I aspired to be like Tomba."

Michael Schumacher's incomparable F1 success inspired one-time wünderkindt Sebastian Vettel. Schumi first met little Seb in 1994, after then seven-year-old Vettel won a karting competition outside his hometown of Heppenheim. Undoubtedly, this meeting with a legend in the making (Schumacher would go on to win seven championships and 91 races, both records) lit a fire in the young Seb. Schumi became Vettel's mentor – advising him on everything from who to race for to the business side of being a superstar. It may not have been coincidence, either, that Schumacher's return to the track in 2010 with Mercedes coincided neatly with Vettel's rise to dominance – Vettel won the championship in each of the three years Schumacher and he raced together. It was inevitable, then, that Vettel would turn his back on Red Bull, with whom he won four drivers' championships, to race for Ferrari, a team still synonymous with the great elder German.

"It's hard," adds Prost, "if you are a fan of many different sports. For me, I first liked soccer, then it was skiing, then golf. I've always admired Fernando Alonso, for example. I think he's a fantastic driver, but he's not an idol."

Other idols-turned-rivals haven't ended so beautifully. This year's MotoGP World Championship witnessed a huge falling out between the legendary Valentino Rossi, who returned to prominence in 2014 after years out of the running, and two younger racers, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez.

Both of the Spanish riders admired Rossi growing up, but found themselves embroiled in an unexpected battle for dominance. It is not often that a sportsman grows up to be a direct rival with a resurgent legend, let alone two at the same time. Marquez used to collect toys of Rossi and recently referred to him as "my reference", but during the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, Rossi and Marquez fell out spectacularly.

According to Rossi, Marquez was about as straight as a circle. Sounding slightly like a 9/11 Truther, Rossi made statements implying that his young protégé had turned against him and was now conspiring with his fellow Spaniard Lorenzo to ensure Rossi lost the championship. Chances are they're not swapping Christmas cards this year – Lorenzo did ultimately seal the deal at the final race.

Another amusing example of idol-turned-rival occurred this year at Wimbledon, when Heather Watson came within inches of knocking Serena Williams out of the tournament. It was a gutsy and exciting performance – kind of reminiscent of when the raptors get really close to killing the T-Rex in Jurassic Park but eventually get swatted away. Serena, though, is one of those evergreen wonders whose influence and brilliance is so ingrained in sporting culture that practically everyone she plays these days used to idolise her. It would have been more noteworthy if Heather Watson had never heard of Serena Williams. To her credit, spunky Watson was very keen to point out that all she had done was lose – that a defeat would never be considered a "career high", even if was against her favourite player.

"So, if my kids said to me tomorrow," adds Prost, "that they want to support someone like Roger Federer or Nadal, I'd be very proud. These two guys are incredible – when I watch them play, I don't know who I'm rooting for. Federer's character and technicality, his smoothness in play, is fantastic. Nadal's desire to win is amazing. Mentally, he's brilliant. They're both very inspiring characters."

Sport is a great place to trace these human stories – like the wonderful moment when Eidur Gudjohnsen came on for his international football debut in place of his father, Arnor, in 1996. It was the first and to date only time this has ever happened. We guess what this all means is that idols can be anyone – and anything. Legends, great big thorns in your sporting side, and even your own dad.