Have we all gone football crazy?
Some would prefer it if we could have the beautiful game without the ugly, oikish overpaid players.
Capturing the tone of much recent comment, the leader column of our leading liberal newspaper demands to know whether football, ‘intoxicated by its own excesses’, has ‘suddenly gone crazy?’. It is hard to see how a sport could become intoxicated or go insane. But to judge by the hysterical media circus surrounding all things football of late, somebody certainly seems to have taken leave of their senses.
There seems to have been little in the news for a couple of weeks bar football- related scandal stories about two alleged sexual assaults, some loutish behaviour on and off the pitch and a missed drugs test. What do these largely unconnected events and issues really tell us about a crisis in football or even, as some would suggest, in society at large? Little or nothing. However, the media reaction to them is far more revealing.
All those headlines about ‘loaded and loathsome’ players make clear that some of those who now profess to ‘love football’ also hate footballers. As football has become increasingly fashionable among the middle classes in recent years, so there have been concerted efforts to sanitise the game and its image on and off the pitch. This has now reached the point where some observers would apparently prefer it if we could have the beautiful game without having to tolerate the ugly, oikish overpaid players at all – like the fun games of table football that the boys and girls enjoy in Friends.
Many justify their anti-footballer tirades by claiming that players are not only better paid than in the past, they are also much worse behaved. But as our sports columnist Duleep Allirajah argues elsewhere on spiked, such arguments reveal less about falling standards than about a collective loss of memory (see Offside, 9 October). If anything there is far less carousing among top professionals today than there was 20 or 30 years ago. Yet even former players who could have drunk for England in their day now join in the obligatory head-shaking condemnations of today’s feckless footballers.
What’s new is not so much the behaviour of young men with plenty of money, fame and time on their hands, but the reaction to it. This week all sorts of experts and authorities have popped up to say that footballers need more counselling, more compulsory socialisation, more citizenship education, etc. In effect, that young adults need to be put back in trainer pants and taught how to behave. This attitude combines old-fashioned contempt for horrid little working-class kids with ‘too much’ money, with the new prejudice of those who wish that lovely football could be played by ‘nice’ people like themselves.
If footballers break the law, then of course they should be treated like anybody else. If on the other hand what they are guilty of is arrogance, ignorance and idiocy, then people are entitled to judge them accordingly. But there is no law that says a rich young footballer has to act like Little Lord Fauntleroy. If home secretary David Blunkett makes boorish behaviour a crime, the jails will soon be even more full, and not only with working-class footballers.
Perhaps one reason why many imagine that footballers have suddenly fallen from grace is that they have been put on a pedestal in recent years. Witness the repeated talk of how footballers must act as moral ‘role models’ for young people today. But why should we imagine that sporting heroes will be able to set wider examples to society? In many ways these young men, who should be single-mindedly dedicated to winning on the pitch, are the least well qualified to give anybody guidance in the real world. Witness Saint David of Beckham’s recent vacuous comments about the role of football in achieving world peace.
The ridiculous notion of footballers as role models for the nation is symptomatic of a wider problem: the elevation of a game into the focus for so much public debate and concern. Twenty years ago, football was condemned as a slum sport watched in slum stadiums by slum people (including people like me). Now it is treated as a cross between religion, rock‘n’roll and royalty.
Football appears to have risen in status and importance as other established institutions and social solidarities have declined. In effect, football has filled the vacuum where our public life should be. As political parties, trades unions, churches and the rest have lost their grip on the public imagination, football has emerged as just about the only thing that can command mass support and engagement, with the England football team as the one popular focus of national sentiment. Little wonder that everybody from Tony Blair downwards has sought to latch on to ‘the football thing’ to promote their bogus slogans about community and inclusion.
Now football often dominates the news. It is not just that Beckham’s latest hairstyle or injury inevitably makes the front pages. Even straight political stories are often reported in the argot of the game. So the chancellor’s Blair-baiting speech at the Labour Party conference earned ‘1-0 to Brown’ headlines, while the prime minister’s subsequent declaration that he intended to fight and win a third election was translated into football-speak as ‘I want the treble’.
This trend has reached a new fever pitch this week, as the media-manipulated panic about football going insane has taken over news coverage. A few footballers’ problems have been turned into a metaphor for rampant consumerism, sexual license, social breakdown or anything else that anybody wants to moan about in modern life. A mismatch if ever there was one.
Let’s try to get a grip, before this nonsense gets entirely out of hand. Football, as somebody once said, is not the greatest game, it is the only game – or at least the only one that really matters to many of us. (Television schedulers of rugby’s so-called world cup, please note.) But it is still only a game. Those individuals who treat it as something more than that have traditionally been looked at as sad and advised to get a life. When a society starts acting like a football-obsessed saddo, it looks like a sign of something far more worrying.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
Can we have our ball back please?, by Mick Hume, The Times (London)
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