The 2011/12 season (or The Best Football Season EverTM as it will be known until May next year) ended with possibly the most dramatic closing day in English top flight history, a Champions League win for Chelsea that King Leonidas would have been proud of and an excellent Euro 2012 tournament won by Spain in Poland and Ukraine.
Off the pitch however, it’s also been a bumper year for controversy too.
Racism, sexism, greed and barbarism all combined for a near-perfect storm of disgrace that football’s critics were quick to exploit.
John Terry’s trial for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand feels like the final episode in a toxic series that even the producers of Dream Team may have thought better of.
There is, of course, much to decry in the attitudes and behaviour of football players, club execs and their fans.
From Luis Suarez, Antonio Cassano and Ryan Giggs to fascist hooligans and the ghoulish mocking of tragedies from the terraces, the world that has grown around the sport is often lamentable, and at times downright depressing for football fans who just want to enjoy the game.
It’s not just the players and fans either. At the very top, FIFA’s elections and administrators are opaque and suspicious, brands shred the game’s soul and traditions apart, and club officials are criticised for distorting and rigging competitions, be it through “buying the league” with financial might or the far more severe villainy of widespread match fixing.
Football’s detractors rarely need much encouragement to dismiss and deride the sport and its followers. Ugly news and salacious headlines are met with a wry smirk and a blunt witted quip.
“The beautiful game, eh?” they harp, as if they alone stand against the ignorant tide of Neanderthal ball watchers who wish to see polite civilisation burn.
Why don’t these guardians of virtue besmirch Wagner or the Ancient Greeks? Based on the baggage that lingers in their closets they should be having a field day revising Western culture.
Eric Clapton and John Lennon are lauded as authentic icons of pop’s benign and respectable rebellion, yet Slowhand is known to enjoy spitting out venomous, racist rants while Lennon beat his first wife, Cynthia, and regularly acted in a manner far removed from his otherwise saintly image.
Instead of being ripped to pieces for their unrelated iniquities, the charges raised against Wagner, Clapton, Lennon and co are skirted over, denied or tenuously explained away to keep such cultural idols immaculate and safe from their closeted skeletons.
For many, the prevailing consensus is that we should disassociate the flawed individual from the artist and their work, a courtesy rarely afforded to the game of football.
It seems to have become acceptable, perhaps even expected, that football is judged and condemned for the off-the-field actions of its associated cast.
The beauty of the game’s plays, goals, passes and action shrugged off as inconsequential compared to the sordid gossip of the back pages. Would the technique and musicality of a principal violinist be any less appreciated due to some personal crisis played out in public?
Dismissing football as worthless (or worse) betrays the critic’s own engrained elitism and bias.
While there is a lot wrong within the bubble that surrounds football, the game itself is a beautiful invention of quick feet, imagination, individual courage and daring, collective spirit. At its best it is savoured by connoisseurs like any other form of culture, be it high or low, formal or popular.
When the senses are focused on appreciating the elegant mechanics and magic of the game at hand, the unpleasantness of the players and their private lives is ultimately irrelevant.
For all their nefarious acts, Rooney and Suarez can still render a stadium breathless with just the strike of a ball, for it is those moments of unexpected brilliance that transfixes football fans, not tabloid narratives.
Such non-sequiturs on character or morals come later—maybe only by a half-second for rival fans—but the act of the play stands alone, pure and electrifying.
Whether the creator is some brash renegade like Mario Ballotelli or a quiet family man such as Paul Scholes, on the pitch, elegant skill and athletic invention are ultimately all that matters.
By all means criticise the behaviour of the players and the bloated industry that can sadly, at times, eclipses the sport, but disregarding the game itself is akin to dismissing Lennon, Wagner and Clapton outright for their off-stage odiousness.
Surely in 2012 we should be able to separate the game from the gossip?