‘We are now obliged to …. return to that pandemic and apparently incurable social disease known as Association Football. We return from the loyalty and fair play of our cyclists, rowers and runners to that vast carnival of cheating, brutality and avarice known as the Premier League. We return from one vision of our country, personified by the decency and charm of Brad and Jessica, Laura and Mo, to that other isle, full of the noises made by John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Joey Barton. ‘
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Guardian, 16th August, 2012
The above may be distinctive in its florid pomposity but the sentiments are by no means unique, and in fact seemed to form a good 10% of Olympic commentary, on screen and online. John Inverdale, two-shirt-buttons-down, his golf-club compering of the Olympics athletics in full flow, let rip an audible sigh of moral superiority when BBC cameras focused in on spectator Frank Lampard. ‘And to think the football season starts only next week,’ he sighed.
Now our beautiful Olympic bubble has indeed been burst by football: ubiquitous, gauche, dirty, ugly football. The once ‘Beautiful Game’, now apparently bastardised and corrupted beyond salvation, has only gone and started up again to remind us that the Olympics was but a fortnight. Football is forever. It never bloody stops.
John Terry and Wayne Rooney have indeed returned. Joey Barton hasn’t because he is still serving a ban from his most recent act of destruction/self-destruction. Some may wish to change the back page leads of the red tops or the front pages of the Sunday heavy’s sports supplements but no matter how many phone-ins or pub conversations plead otherwise, the drip feed continues. Football’s hold remains. Beckham, Henry, Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Balotelli: all pop culture icons, all with a narrative in place, whether we like it or not. Many don’t, apparently, but there are vast numbers of fans who do. It’s worth explaining why.
To be fair, Wheatcroft is right. Football is ‘a vast carnival of cheating, brutality and avarice’ and it is this, plus of course the skill and technique required to succeed at the most popular sport ever played on the planet, which provides its enduring allure. A stage cannot be occupied solely by heroes without getting very dull, very quickly.
Like politics, football has long given up its pretence to be noble; it is in fact debatable whether it ever really pretended. The pleasure you get from a perfect Messi dribble is always twinned with the contorting sense of injustice that burns a hole in your soul whenever John Terry achieves any kind of professional satisfaction.
But we would soon tire of noble Olympians if we were subjected to them for all but a few weeks in a year, rather than for only a few days every four years. Jessica Ennis’ wide eyed joy would soon become one note; Mo Farah’s blinkered and naïve theory that his success was down solely to hard work would soon be ignored in favour of a high jumper’s naked twit pic.
On the pitch, football is a balanced, continuous drama. It has enough heroes to personify excellence (Messi, Scholes, Iniesta, Casillas), enough villains to add to its drama (van Bommel, Cole,Terry). It has enough reassuring structure to orientate its fans (Leicester will never win the Champions League, any golfer seems capable of winning a major), but enough variation to keep it interesting (Chelsea’s novel 11-0-0 approach to securing last season’s Champions League and the unbelievable climax to last season’s Premier League ).
To paraphrase Gordon Gekko: Football is good. Football works.
Sky and British Telecom would not be paying £1 billion a season to broadcast live matches if it wasn’t working. Over 20 million watched a very average England lose again on penalties in this summer’s European Championships (far in excess of most Olympic evening viewing figures). Over 500,000 supporters actually paid to watch matches live over the season’s opening weekend, and will carry on doing so for the next 40 odd weekends. The demand is there. The respect isn’t. It’a a bit like Kentucky Fried Chicken.
This lack of respect is largely based on our opinion not of the game, which remains an often joyous thing, but its players. You know – the feckless, disloyal, inarticulate, charmless, spit roasting hordes of millionaires that dive, swear, snarl and question every referee’s decision. This is a caricature of course but one so enthusiastically embraced, it is worth wondering why.
Obviously, there are many examples of footballers behaving badly. The transcripts to emerge from the Anton Ferdinand and John Terry racism case this summer were pathetic, lightened only by the back of the class giggles generated from a high court judge asking Ferdinand ‘and how many times did you call him a c**t and he call you a c**t?’ Players revered on the pitch have turned out to be less wholesome off it; Ryan Giggs’ love life is a very, very bad episode of Hollyoaks.
Footballers’ salaries are of course grotesque. Famously, Ashley Cole drove his car off the road when his agent explained to him that his then club, Arsenal, would not meet his wage demands. Only six years ago, the sums that subjected Cole to public demonisation now seem laughably small. Arsenal would only pay him £55,000 a week and not the £60,000 a week he was demanding. Robin van Persie, another recent Arsenal departure, will be earning £200,000 a week at Manchester United. He will not even become the club’s highest earner. The sums are dizzying and distance footballers not only from football supporters but human beings generally.
Yet it is odd that footballers, whose chief role is surely as entertainers, are subjected to a pious scrutiny others are not. Pop stars sleep around, drink and drug, earn a lot, behave badly and cheat on their partners. No commentator has questioned Take That’s right to perform to thousands based on the shambolic nature of some of the band’s private lives. Nobody has demanded Jude Law be fined for sleeping with the nanny.
Similarly, a familiar and often justified lament of musicians is that the money they generate gets lost among a plethora of middle-men, management and promoters. A footballer’s wealth is a direct result of the money we are prepared to pay to watch them play football either via a ticket or Sky subscription. It is our problem that we continue to pay ever increasing prices, not theirs. So, why don’t we acknowledge that for once the ‘talent’ is getting a fair share, even if the pot from which it is extracted is grotesquely large? Yes, the money generated by the Premier League should be filtered down to all levels of the game, and a token proportion is, but would anyone seriously contemplate asking Gary Barlow to subsidise small, unprofitable music venues in Macclesfield?
Footballers are not asked to play by the same rules as our other entertainers. Instead, they are treated with the same disdain and self righteousness as bankers. This is down to a sense of betrayal that has its roots in our expectations of both.
Bankers, our financial guardians, kept a world we didn’t understand, from us. We could remain wilfully ignorant as long as the vagaries of the market worked for us and not against us. This unspoken trust was shattered when it became apparent our financial sector did not shield us but deliberately exposed us to market forces. We were being had.
Footballers were once there to represent community and country, were not commercial entities but civic, public property, part of how cities and nations presented themselves. Since the advent of the Premier League, a changing dynamic was accelerated. Our football clubs are now vehicles through which wealth can be acquired. We weren’t using their talent; they were using our loyalty. We were being had.
It is a betrayal felt keenly. Football in 2012 would not be Shankly’s kind of socialism. Players don’t leave clubs to win medals but to earn more, happy to be paid and not to play in many cases. The link between place and player is all but severed, only the biggest and highest paying clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona have the front to display loyalty as a calling card. Elsewhere the hollow badge kiss is a reviled symbol of the mercenary.
While we used footballers to present ourselves, players like David Beckham were the perfect poster boy. Loyal and patriotic, Becks remained largely silent (wise in his case) and pliant to the will of his bosses, both club and commercial. He survived his own period as public pariah after his World Cup sending off to become, not exactly a template for the modern footballer, but a reminder of how things were, which may explain his baffling popularity.
Now footballers seem to be taking a more honest, direct and infinitely more interesting approach to explaining why they do the things they do.
Dispense with Match of the Day’s inoffensive vacuum, and instead consider Jamie Carragher’s brutally honest analysis at this summer’s European Championship. Carragher happily told the world in response to a question about camaraderie that ‘everything a player says to a camera during a tournament is all lies.’ Carragher is not alone.
Joey Barton, a complex fish if ever there was one, has the audacity to be both difficult to like and interesting to follow, no matter how some journalists may sneer at his references to literature and The Smiths. His past has been marked by some horrendous violence, but that doesn’t make his takes on football and footballers less interesting.
His twitter released version of his sending off at Man City broke football’s fourth wall – the dressing room. Already given a red for an off the ball elbow, Barton went on to kick, push and get in the face off the opposition. Most commentators attributed his actions to a man whose reputation justified the tired throwaway – ‘the red mist.’
His justification afterwards was that once he had been sent off and on the advice of another player, he wanted to see if could get a Man City player sent off to even up the numbers. A completely plausible version of events, and in its way professional if not sportsmanlike. As yet to be corroborated by another team mate from QPR, this breach of the usual wall of silence may go some way to explaining why Barton was in the south of France this week negotiating a move to Olympique Marseilles.
Stan Collymore, difficult in the dressing room, never settling at a club, famously assaulted a girlfriend and was caught dogging – an emblem of the feckless and selfish 90’s footballer. Post retirement, he has emerged as an articulate and brave campaigner for awareness of depression, a provocative broadcaster and a slayer of narrow minded Tory MPs. His shows and twitter account talk of the thrill of getting his first pair of football boots through to his take on the race split he got caught up in as a mixed race Brummie at Crystal Palace. He has helped us understand the huge, complex array of motivations and urges driving footballers. A similar candid approach has been taken with infuriating anonymity by the Secret Footballer (Pop Lifer’s money is on Danny Murphy), whose Guardian columns have just become a book.
Both are merely articulating what is obvious but until recently remained a guarded secret; footballers sometimes don’t like each other, feel insecure and are capable of being noble, funny and a complete arsehole. Often at the same Christmas do.
When we wanted our footballers to be ambassadors (few were ever role models) it was good enough to churn out ‘over the moon, take each game at a time’ platitudes. The likes of Carragher, Collymore and Barton are a new front; an articulate, sometimes difficult, evolution which signals the end of the doff capping structures modern football emerged from.
They articulate the new rules of engagement. We no longer have a civic bond with our footballers but a financial contract in a market place. This can be ugly. Profit is. However, it is also thrusts football into the same world as pop, film, and TV where numbers are everything also. We pay too much now to watch football to be fobbed off with “110%” and “totally gutted”.
Now we need to reach a new understanding. If we, the football paying public, drop the double standards and they, the football playing elite, can be a little more candid, we may be able to get on better again. There will still be heroes and there will still be villians, but we’ll remember that most are plain humans with nifty footwork.