The football is back, but it seems many wish it wasn’t.
With London 2012 still ringing in the ears of millions, national opinion looks to have been set on a collision course with the overpaid, oversexed and overexposed players of the Premier League.
Do footballers have a case to answer? In short, yes but I’m not so sure the issue is as clean cut as many are seeking to make it out.
Of course, comparing Luis Suarez to Mo Farah, or a rowdy football crowd to a set of Olympic spectators, and the result will hardly be flattering. How often though do honest, hard working professional footballers get given the media platform to represent their sport?
Pundits and supporters alike often lament the lack of “characters” and “personalities” in the modern game, which makes the exclusion of intelligent and articulate players such as Vincent Kompany all the more frustrating. While the antics of Mario Balotelli and co generate headlines on the front and back pages of the tabloid press, more sober heads such as City’s Belgian captain struggle to muster column inches. Respectable spokesmen for the game shouldn’t have to let off fireworks in the en suite of their Cheshire mansion to be heard.
In contrast, this summer have been filled with a disproportionate number of humble, eloquent and highly likeable athletes, who are hardly representative of the worst the Olympics have to offer. The murder charge hanging over the head of Kenyan runner Ezekial Kemboi is a far more serious accusation than the one that overshadowed John Terry’s appearance at Euro 2012. Meanwhile, the diving and amateur theatrics of Sergio Busquets and Ashley Young is incomparable to the doping and arrogance of Justin Gatlin, Alexandr Vinokurov and Dwain Chambers.
Why are the sins of athletics and other sports seemingly forgiven by the showmanship and honour of Usain Bolt, Sir Chris Hoy and Jessica Ennis when the positive role models of football receive relatively little attention?
On April 16, it was reported that Antonio Di Natale would become the guardian of Piermario Morsini’s severely disabled sister. Morsini tragically passed away on the pitch last season aged just 25. While Di Natale wasn’t shouting about his deeds from the rooftops over in Italy, such an act of generosity and kindness deserved far more press than the limited splash it made in the football media, especially when compared to the coverage of Ryan Giggs and John Terry’s antics. Sadly, salacious gossip and scandal sells, and we as a nation buy our newspapers based on the quality of the mud slung across their headers: the dirtier the better.
Whatever their reasons (money and jealousy?) many of the Great British public seem predisposed to hate millionaire footballers, or at least feel that these work-shy kick ball merchants owe them, the hard working ordinaries, some great civil debt. On the other hand Olympians, who are still somehow perceived as impoverished amateurs regardless of their handsome endorsements, are to be admired. Footballers are paid an astonishing amount of money, but its not public taxpayer’s funds that are funnelled into the pockets of them and their agents. It’s money that is ultimately brought into the sport by the demand to watch these men compete to kick a ball across a well-kept green. That they get paid a lot of money for piquing the interest of a great many people doesn’t alter the fact that their backgrounds are often as diverse as their play styles. Many are often rather quite average. They’re not heroes, villains or born celebrities, they’re often deeply flawed and messed up human beings who were lucky enough to be born on a planet where their ability to hoof a sphere is worth billions.
As Iain MacIntosh said earlier this week in his UniBet piece, Stop Kicking The Beautiful Game In The Teeth: “You can’t arbitrarily hold people to account for the sins of the society simply because they earn a lot of money. It makes as much sense as hitting up the cast of EastEnders to subsidise the RNLI, or blaming Cheryl Cole for the lack of lollypop ladies in rural Shropshire.”
On and off the field, players can be selfish, shortsighted, impulsive and destructive, but isn’t such emotional immaturity inevitable considering the lack of a proper childhood and adolescence? If track and field athletes were paid thousands of pounds a week from age of 17, removed from formal education at the earliest opportunity and then thrown under the unforgiving microscope of the 24-hour focus of the rolling news media, they may not turn to be the most well rounded and balanced people either. Add to that the testosterone, peer pressure and raw, aggressive emotion surrounding football and its easy to see where it all goes wrong.
Speaking before last night’s game against Italy, England captain Frank Lampard pointed out that while footballers need to learn from positive example set by many Olympians, such athletes do not have fans “screaming abuse” at them while competing. The atmosphere surrounding football is directly confrontational, aggressive and harshly competitive, often melodramatically so. If most Olympians were to perform twice a week under such conditions, their composure, smiles and positivity would take a battering.
It must be remembered that football fulfils a different purpose altogether to Olympic sports. Not only a spectacle of sporting endeavour, the beautiful game is also an end-of-the-week pressure release valve for thousands of fans that vent and channel the pressures of the working week in voracious displays support of their team. You won’t see some burly, grimacing bloke at the front for the 100m sprint turning the air blue as his seven day hell is compounded by watching the awful Danish runner he follows slump in at last place.
When it comes to the insidious influence of the press, it’s worth remembering that their toxicity isn’t limited to football. Let’s also not forget the persecution of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, who was hounded by the press and athletics authorities alike some science experiment gone wrong due to her natural physique. Closer to home the constant criticism and picking at “miserable” Andy Murray grows more distasteful with every summer. The “Plastic Brits” tag of the tabloids in the run up to London 2012 was as depressingly predictable as it was hilariously pathetic. Imagine if such poison was handed out on a weekly basis, as it is to footballers, rather than around the infrequent major athletics meets that take place every two years, in Murray case, the annual mania during Wimbledon.
While hacks may not be directly coercing players into behaving badly, they certainly contribute towards creating the perfect atmosphere for it. For example, look at the decline in behaviour from the England Rugby and Cricket teams once their increased profile in the press took hold. With expectations and coverage comes worse behaviour, more public outrage and higher paper circulation. No wonder players scowl and close up during interviews. Why not play up to stereotype and narrative of the despicable, idiot footballer when any other persona will be ignored, twisted or worse?
This leads me to view footballers as amoral rather than immoral. They do live in a different world, surrounded by yes men and Machiavellian agents, living lives far removed from reality or reason. To be a modern football today is to sacrifice much of your childhood to the game and its demands, enjoying a stunted social life until the onset of professional contracts that bring more money fame and attention than they could possibly imagine in one fell swoop.
Last month I wrote a piece about separating the game from its often-despicable protagonists. We watch football for its beauty, drama and skill not moral guidance, or at least we shouldn’t. Footballers will always be role models due to their athletic status and success of course, but this shouldn’t be encouraged. Athletes of any sport are not valid substitutes to good parenting and moral guidance. They should not be the inspirations for deciding where you stand on euthanasia or the life lessons you wish to pass onto you kids
Football can certainly learn from the mood and vibe of the London 2012 games, but the denigration of the sport in recent days has been laughably over the top. Yes, referees should card for dissent and abuse, and perhaps fans may have to face up to the part they play in maintaining the unhealthy tone fired through football, but in truth, football is a symptom of our society rather than a sickness in itself.
What do you think of football and footballers following the London 2012 Olympic Games?