Midway through the second half of Saturday's match between Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland, Dele Alli did something petulant and, one could argue, pretty dumb. After chasing a contested ball out of bounds, Alli, in a fit of what can only be described as "pique," flipped the ball behind him while strolling back up the pitch, right off Sunderland fullback Patrick van Aanholt's face. It was a brilliantly calculated move: there was enough intent to know that the backhanded toss was completely intentional but with just enough plausible deniability for him to avoid any kind of repercussions from match official Mike Dean.
It's not the first time Alli's done something like this. He went jaw to jaw with Mark Noble back in November and maaaaaaaybe kinda-sorta head-butted him after he adjudged the West Ham player was a mite too rough with Harry Kane. He did the same thing with Newcastle hardman Aleksandar Mitrovic after Mitrovic essentially bodychecked him out of play. All three of these incidents were cheekily summarized in a Vine that made the rounds this past weekend. And these are just the ones that are caught on video. Anecdotal reports say that Alli is a bit of a hot-head: a remarkably self-assured player who isn't afraid to wind up other players to his own advantage.
What these incidents all tell us is that Dele Alli is a member of a prestigious archetype in sports: a rare blend of outstanding talent, supreme self-confidence, and verve.
In short, he's a jerk. A complete and utter knob. And that's why Tottenham Hotspur fans love him.
The best teams, in any sport, always have that one guy who's both obscenely talented and a ginormous asshole in games. They can have boyish good looks (Tim Tebow), or be ugly as sin (Dennis Rodman), but either way the traits they tend to have in common are extremely punchable faces and exceptional ability. They're the kinds of players that will insult your mother just before pulling up and burying a long three-pointer, smiling beatifically at the camera. Or who will grab their crotch after scoring a rushing touchdown in front of the other team's fans.
Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Greg Paulus were part of a long, long line of these players in Duke University's basketball program (Grayson Allen is the current standard-bearer). Bill Laimbeer was the 1980s NBA bad-boy stereotype. Before him was Rick Barry, one of the most irascible, nun-punching jerks to ever put on a uniform.
Terrell Owens. Pacman Jones. John Rocker. The list goes on. The only people who love these athletes were the ones who root for their team. Sometimes they alienate even some of their fans.
Yeah, they're jerks. And they know exactly what they're doing.
I grew up an Indiana University basketball fan, a team coached for 30 years by a colossal jackass and one that often included quite a few jackasses in its roster. (The irony that the All-Time Hall of Fame Jackass himself, Bob Knight, demanded nothing less than full obedience and moral rectitude from his players while in charge is certainly not lost on me as I careen toward my fifth decade.) The one guy in Indiana's recent-ish history who fits this archetype the most was Dane Fife: a Yorkshire terrier of a player who specialized in defense and getting into players' heads. He could shut you down with his perimeter defense AND trash-talk you into a blind, spitting rage.
He was infuriating. Big Ten conference players and fans loathed him beyond reason. I loved him to death. Fife is now an assistant coach for Tom Izzo at Michigan State; it wouldn't surprise me if he also gave advice to his charges on how to make pick-pocket steals and hit opposing players in the nuts when the refs aren't looking.
You don't have to look too hard in soccer to find these guys either. Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, John Terry, Craig Bellamy, Joey Barton, and Ashley Young all are players that earned more than their fair share of flak for their antics but also found ways to win points. And the thing is, these players serve important, almost crucial roles for their clubs. They're lightning rods for criticism and attention. They revel in the ire of opposition fandom. Sure, some (maybe most) of them are nice guys in real life, but some aren't, and it really doesn't matter.
Unremarkably, fans of their club have a much higher tolerance for their antics than they would for other players pulling the exact same stunts for different clubs. There's no lack of irony here: these players' on-pitch antics drive their clubs to victory even as they drive fans to distraction.
Sure, it can backfire. Diego Costa gets cards now not because he necessarily did something egregiously wrong, but because he's Diego Costa. The best soccer d**ks are the ones that are sneaky: they'll do their best to wind players up and get inside their heads not by taking them out at the knees (or fingering them in the unmentionables), but by tossing a ball at their heads.
So welcome to the club, Dele Alli. But in fairness, it's not like he's the only cheeky devil in a squad of angels. Jan Vertonghen perfected the petulant shirt-pull last season along with the disaffected sneer. Eric Dier hears people say stuff about Tottenham and he doesn't like it. I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect Ben Davies has a nasty and dark streak in his play.
Yet it's Alli who's carrying the tetchiness torch this season, and with every audacious nutmeg, his reputation grows. He's already earned a number of yellow cards – six by current count, one behind Dier – some of them for stupid reasons. He's also shown a tendency to be a burgeoning wind-up merchant, and he clearly isn't cowed by the idea of squaring up to his elders if he feels it's necessary.
His manager sees it too. Mauricio Pochettino went on record after Saturday's ball-tossing incident to say that Alli is just a little bit "naughty," and he likes it that way.
"He's very young, he needs to learn a lot. It's a little bit naughty; he's a little bit naughty. I like how he is because you need to be a little bit naughty when you play football. It is true that he needs to learn...
"He is how he is. Sometimes you need to be hard with him, sometimes you need to be friendly and give love. It’s like your son. Sometimes you need to give love, sometimes you need to be hard with him."
You can say that Dele Alli is young (he is). You can say that he's extremely cocky (that's also true). You can say that if he played for Liverpool we would loathe him (indisputable). But he doesn't, and we don't.
Dele Alli is a gateway into that tiny part of ourselves that we keep shuttered around polite company. He says and does things that we wish we could do, but know we can't do. He's brash, he's bold, he's petulant, he's amazingly good at football for someone who only just learned to drive (and there's video of that too). But Alli's also apparently not mean. He's not racist. He doesn't break people's legs like James McClean or hearts like Olivier Giroud. Plus he's cute when he waves at the camera.
And so we Spurs fans love him in the way that only sports fans can love someone: unconditionally, embracing his flaws and reveling in his successes. We hand-wave away his faults and chortle knowingly every time he acts like a bit of a jackass, because why not? He's a member of our tribe. In the end, that's really all that matters.