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the square ball week: botaka, too real

the square ball week: botaka, too real

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Hands up who spent an hour on YouTube this week watching multiple re-edits of the same Jordan Botaka footage?

And keep your hands in the air if you didn’t care that it was all the same few tricks and goals with different soundtracks and varied, garish flare effects? Because watching this Botaka, the man nobody (it turns out) calls The Wizard, is exciting.

He’s good. One of my favourite Botaka moments from these videos is when he nutmegs some chump down by the touchline. Like a proper winger, Botaka’s boots are on the chalk, but when he decides to bring the ball inside, he has a defender in the way. No problem. He ’megs him, and the best part is that the defender feels it happen; like a vasectomy patient under local anaesthetic, he knows something is slicing him between the legs, and that he can’t do anything about it but let it happen. As Botaka speeds away from him with the ball, the camera captures the defender’s reaction in the back of the shot, and we discover that he only went in that morning for an ingrowing toenail; he slaps his hands to his thigh’s sides and raises the face of his impotence to the uncaring sky.

Another is his backheel goal. As he is about to receive the ball on the penalty spot, we can see Botaka has options. There are few defenders around, although they are marking him closely, and a first time strike could catch the keeper out at his front post; but Botaka controls the ball, and surely he is going to spin and shoot with his left foot into the other corner. Instead, Botaka waits.

And what we see next is that Botaka is completely tuned to what his skill makes possible, and that he has decided to wait to give that skill the best possible chance of success, and it has worked. By waiting, Botaka has fooled the defender, who was expecting something to happen instantly and has carried on as if it has; the goalkeeper paused, but gained no benefit, because he’s no nearer to knowing what Botaka is going to do next. What Botaka does next is exactly according to plan; he rolls the ball back beneath his foot, then with the side of his right heel flicks it into the corner of the goal. Everybody probably knew, deep down, that Botaka could score a goal like that; but only Botaka knew that he would.

The characteristic move in all that is not Botaka’s, but the defender’s. Like many other supporting actors in these videos, he is effectively removed from the game by a quick action of Botaka’s. You see it a lot; players spinning out of relevance as soon as Botaka nudges the ball from one foot to another; in one glorious, pitch level, hard-to-decode clip it looks like four defenders at once are ruled out by one Botaka shimmy and backheel.

Questions remain about consistency and end product, but those concerns are hardly unique to YouTube glimpses, edited by fanboys combining their love of skillz with their love of hi-NRG Eurodance; those questions have been asked about every winger who ever ’megged a nut. Some product has been included in the edits, fortunately; Botaka chipping a perfect reverse through ball to claim an assist, or arriving like an arrow in a medieval warrior’s thigh to tap a cross home at the back post. In another, a pixelated coloured ring appears around Botaka’s feet as he dribbles in from the left wing and curls the ball around a goalkeeper who can see what’s coming, but can’t think of a way to stop the ball reaching Botaka’s team mate at the back post.

It’s almost as if Botaka in that clip is being controlled by some exterior being, and when that FIFA style coloured ring picked his feet out, it made me pause and wonder how much of what I was watching was real, and how much was the work of another subculture of teens, pressing the right buttons in the right order so that Botaka can place a rabona cross on the head of Aguero, the pair united up front for the greatest IFK Gothenburg side ever assembled.

That’s one of the things we learned about Botaka this week: that as well as hurdling despairing fullbacks, he hurdles reality, existing both in our world, where he is a new Leeds United player waiting to make his debut, and another world, where he is one of a select group of players who is more skilful than Lionel Messi.

The skill ratings in the new FIFA ’16 game need a little explaining in order to make sense of that. Messi — the real one that plays for Barcelona — is the world’s greatest footballer because, among other things, he is balanced, direct and effective. When he takes on and beats five players to score a goal, it’s because that was the fastest route to goal available; and he’ll beat each one with the minimum of effort, saving the energy other players might expend on complicated tricks so that he still has that energy to use on the next one, if he needs it. Messi is a modernist; form follows function.

And that means, in the harsh world of computer game skill ratings, Messi only gets four stars, because no matter how many times you press A or B, Messi won’t bust out a trick without reason. Botaka, meanwhile, would nutmeg his own granny if there was someone around to make a YouTube video of it, and that’s why his FIFA rating is the full five: the challenge is to stop him raboning everything that moves, not starting.

That’s how he appears on the pitch, and on the computer screen, anyway. But there is another side to Jordan Botaka, revealed in a charming video called Incognito Nutmeg. In this series, a relaxed young man named Soufiane Touzani — who, if truth be told, out-tricks Botaka when they mess about with a ball together; could be worth a bid, Massimo? — puts a wrestling mask on Botaka, so nobody knows who he is, gives him a ball, and invites him to nutmeg as many commuters as he can at the city railway station.

Botaka is too modest to claim he is recognised often on the city streets, but he clearly enjoys being disguised. “You know what it is? It’s like being naked and nobody knows it is you,” reads the subtitle, translating Botaka as he’s led to the public plaza. He’s also too mild mannered to really nutmeg anybody. “Hello ladies, hello,” translate the captions, “Everything okay?” — as, laughing nervously and constantly, he ambles around the citizens, looking for akimbo legs. “Good afternoon gentlemen,” he says to three policemen, thinking twice, three, four times about ’megging them, and ultimately deciding against it.

“I think I could have done much more!” he says at the end. He won’t take the mask off, not wanting to let anybody know the joke, until two girls finally get him to pose for a selfie, which he checks carefully on their phone to make sure they have a good shot. When you hear of his background — an infant refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has had to seek frequent asylum along his journey to Leeds — you wonder if that has anything to do with his polite disinclination to nutmeg, and draw attention to himself, on the city streets; even when you’re a professional footballer with all your papers in order, can you forget so soon, by the age of 22, that nutmegging a police officer would be a pretty stupid way to get deported?

“You are kind, man,” says Soufiane, about the gentle way Botaka went about his work. "It looks like you want a nasty opponent, and then you’ll start being serious.

“You got five nutmegs, five very beautiful ones.” With that, Soufiane seems to hit on the heart of Botaka, and tell us a lot about the player we’re about to see playing for Leeds United.

In another video, the two talk on a Cruyff Court downtown; an all weather mini football pitch, embedded in dozens of Dutch neighbourhoods by the Cruyff Foundation. Each court has a list of fourteen rules for playing football, which of course also read like rules for life. “Which two are your favourites?” asks Soufiane.

“Show respect,” says Jordan Botaka. “And personality. Be who you are.”

“Why be who you are?” asks Soufiane.

“When I play a game in the Eredivisie, most people ask me, why do you play the same as you did last year in the division below?” says Jordan. "Making moves, showing tricks.

“My answer is always, you know, I am who I am. I am not changing because I play in the Eredivisie. I think that is important, else you get lost on the field.”

If Botaka stays true to himself, and to his career so far, he won’t change for Leeds United or The Championship, either. That’s a risky strategy; we’ve all seen young imports from foreign leagues fail to adapt in England, and get lost. But if it works, and Botaka stays true to himself, and to the player in those videos — and, yes, those video games — he could be the most exciting player we’ve had to watch at Leeds United for years and years and years.

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