A last-minute winner, a reflex save in a penalty shootout or a last-ditch sliding tackle in the penalty box with seconds remaining: there are many ways in which footballers can come to the rescue of their sides and play the superhero.
Muscular, talented and idolised on occasion, they have the power to conjure up a mazy dribble, a pinpoint pass or a classy piece of defending and bring a whole stadium to its feet in an instant.
When it comes to footballing supermen, there is none better named than Hulk, aka Givanildo Vieira de Souza. The rampaging Brazil and Zenit St Petersburg striker has been terrorising defences since he first pulled on a shirt for Vitoria back in 2014.
Explaining the origin of his very appropriate nickname in a 2012 interview with FIFA.com, he said: “I’ve had it since I was a kid of around three, because I used to really like that character, The Hulk, and I used to tell my dad how strong I was, how much strength I had. So my dad said to me, ‘OK then, you’re The Hulk’, and they still call me that now. Helpfully for me, I grew into a strong lad, so it fitted well.”
The all-action striker is far from being the only superhero on planet football, however. In recent years fans around the globe have been following the adventures of Batman (Mateja Kezman and Marco Simone), Captain America (Claudio Reyna), Superman (Gianluigi Buffon and Enner Valencia), Iron Man (Marcelo Balboa and Sean Fallon), Spiderman (Jonas Gutierrez and Walter Zenga) and France’s very own Rubber Man (Matuidi).
Referring both to players’ mental and physical attributes, these nicknames have perfectly logical explanations behind them.
Expanding on the origin of his moniker, Serbian striker Kezman said: “It came about in a marketing campaign I was involved in at PSV Eindhoven. People heard the Batman theme music on a TV advert and they made the connection with Kezman. The fans loved it and it stuck. It’s pretty funny but I like it.”
A veteran of 128 international appearances, central defender Balboa was the very first player to win 100 caps for USA. Known for his durability, reliability and sheer strength, he was dubbed Iron Man by the fans. Fallon, meanwhile, earned the same moniker by playing on with a variety of broken and cracked bones en route to becoming a Celtic legend. After one match, in which he had continued despite breaking both his collarbone and wrist, he brushed away concerns, saying: "Ah, it wasn't as if I had a broken leg."
'Iron Man' is a name that could just as easily be applied to Newcastle United’s Gutierrez, who recently returned to action after overcoming testicular cancer. The Argentinian midfielder is Tyneside’s very own Spiderman, however, a name he adopted after a trip to the movies: “When I was in Mallorca, I went to the cinema and that’s when I first saw it,” he told FIFA.com in an interview a few seasons ago. “It all took off from there”.
Gutierrez is not the only player to have taken inspiration from the Hollywood blockbuster. Ecuador’s Otilino Tenorio took the name on after being asked by his Spiderman-loving son to celebrate his goals by pulling on the comic-book hero’s mask. Tenorio did just that, quickly earning the soubriquet of Maskman and changing the colours of his mask to match the colour of the kit he was wearing.
Tenorio was tragically killed in a car crash in 2005, with his Emelec team-mate Ivan Kaviedes paying homage to him at the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany a year later. After scoring against Costa Rica in Ecuador’s final group-phase match, Kaviedes celebrated by pulling on a yellow Spiderman mask, a touching tribute to his late colleague.
Spiderman, Batman and Jackman
Former St Etienne goalkeeper Jeremie Janot went one better at a 2005 league match against Istres, donning the entire Spiderman outfit when the teams ran out on the pitch. When the legendary Verts keeper moved to Le Mans, his former team-mate and close friend Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang paid tribute to him by sporting the famous blue and red mask to celebrate a goal.
Aubameyang went on to join Borussia Dortmund and reprised the gesture after scoring for them in the German Super Cup against Bayern Munich in August 2014, though his antics were not appreciated by everyone. “Fortunately his goal helped us to win,” said Dortmund midfielder Sebastian Kehl. “If it hadn’t, we would have given him a good kick.”
Giving his reaction, the club’s director of football, Michael Zorc, said: “If he does it just the once, then no problem. But it’s not funny when he picks up a yellow card for it. You don’t need that every week.”
Undeterred, the Gabonese international was at it again a few months later. On finding the back of the net in this February’s Ruhr derby against Schalke 04, he donned a Batman mask, with strike sidekick Marco Reus getting in on the act with a Robin mask. “If you didn’t know who Batman and Robin were, then you know now,” said Dortmund’s caped crusader after knocking in his fifth goal in four matches.
Aubameyang and Reus are not the first players to team up as the Dynamic Duo, however. Back in 1977, long before the Dortmund twosome were born, Liverpool forwards John Toshack and Kevin Keegan posed for the cameras in Batman and Robin outfits, a reflection of the telepathic understanding they built up in their six-year partnership at Anfield.
You do not have to have a nickname or a mask to be a footballing superhero, however, not when you have the sculpted physique of Cristiano Ronaldo, who keeps himself in tip-top shape by doing 3,000 sit-ups a day, or the lightning pace of Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin, who can run 40 metres in 4.41 seconds flat. Staggeringly, the quicksilver Spaniard’s time was faster than that achieved by Usain Bolt in the first 40 metres of his world-record-breaking 100m run in 2009.
And what of the indestructible Carles Puyol, who suffered no fewer than 35 injuries in the course of his career without ever letting his superlative performance levels drop? Or former Turkish hotshot Hami Mandirali, who once struck a free-kick at the near-supersonic speed of 266kmh?
And let us not forget the inimitable Lionel Messi, whose unearthly talent once prompted ex-Argentina international Jorge Valdano to comment: “Whenever Messi pulls on a football kit he becomes a superhero.”
But how would the game’s supermen fare against the likes of the Avengers and the X-Men?
Pondering that question in a recent interview with FIFA.com was Australian actor Hugh Jackman, who assessed the potential footballing abilities of his on-screen character Wolverine: “I wouldn’t mind him in the midfield. He could do some serious damage in there. Messi would be thinking, ‘I might just pass it to someone else. I don’t fancy going up against him’.”