29 June ~ Sports reporters in the United States love nothing more than a human interest story. Europeans watching NBC's coverage of the Olympics for the first time find themselves caught between incredulous laughter and a gag reflex. Actual sporting events are often sidelined in favour of a heartbreaking feature on how any number of athletes struggled to overcome their grief at the untimely death of a relative (any relative will do, or a pet if necessary) to emerge as an Olympic qualifier against all odds. Football reporters may be sparse in the US, but those working for the mainstream media are instructed to follow a similarly tear-jerking line.
This season they found their perfect narrative arc in the comeback of on-loan DC United striker Charlie Davies. In October 2009, while in Washington DC for a US World Cup qualifier, Davies broke curfew, went out drinking, and ended up in a speeding car with two women in the small hours of the morning. The car crashed, but Davies and the drunken driver survived. The other passenger was killed. Davies woke up in hospital with several fractures, bleeding on the brain, a lacerated bladder, and no memory of the accident. But he defied talk that his very promising career was now over, and swiftly embarked on rehab.
He didn't recover in time for an unlikely spot in the US World Cup squad, but his French club Sochaux loaned him out to DC for the 2011 season, and so far he has scored eight goals. When he scored twice in the season's opener against Columbus, the journalists had their hook, and Davies was willing to supply the quotes. "Once that final whistle blew, and I looked at the fans, I lost it emotionally because their support meant so much to me," Davies said. "Throughout this whole process of me coming back as a player, they've stuck with me from the beginning to the end, till now."
This week, though, there was a blip in the comeback. Not quite as loud a blip as the time almost exactly a year after his accident when Davies was caught speeding in France at 125mph, again in the early hours of the morning. That time he was fined $1,040 (£650) and had his licence suspended. This week he received a slightly lower $1,000 fine, but it was from the MLS Disciplinary Committee, for diving. Late on in DC United's away game at Salt Lake the weekend before last, Davies went down in the penalty area under no contact at all, and converted the ensuing spot-kick to earn DC a point in a 1-1 draw.
So, "that's football", as Davies himself blandly pointed out, seemingly unconcerned that the defender who'd committed the foul, Chris Wingert, is an old friend who he used to room with at national team camp. Davies doesn't get sentimental about these things. He took a similar flop in the last minute of DC's home game with LA, where he also converted the penalty after what even DC United's normally bovine official website called "a highly dubious call". Final score: 1-1. MLS, though, is taking a different view. "This type of behaviour tarnishes the image of the League, is detrimental to the game and will not be tolerated," its statement said, promising suspensions for any further infractions.
Davies may think it's just being professional to win his team points by cheating, but the great comeback story is taking a disconcerting turn. His fans, his coaches and the US media have all granted him no end of good will in the course of that comeback, despite an evident immaturity when it comes to making bad decisions and repeating past mistakes. While it's clear that Davies has not yet regained the pace that used to see him breeze past defenders prior to the car accident, flopping to the floor instead will only get him so far, while losing him several friends.
It's not the kind of perfect human interest story the US public seemingly loves to hear, but then anyone interested in people knows they're not perfect. Real life is rarely a hokey Hollywood tale, where all setbacks are eventually overcome. In the case of Charlie Davies, though, you can't help but feel he hasn't learned a lot, and now seems intent on continuing to manufacture his own setbacks. For someone who looked two years ago like the greatest US striking prospect of his generation, that's less of a comeback, and more of an ongoing comedown. Ian Plenderleith