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Offside, 9 October

The charge that millionaire footballers have 'too much too young' is based on old-fashioned snobbery.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Are millionaire footballers out of control? That is the accusation being levelled at today’s top footballers after two weeks in which the national game was rocked by a mega-tsunami of scandal.

The alleged gang rape of a 17-year-old girl by unidentified Premiership footballers dominated the news last week. Most journalists, unable to write very much about the case itself due to legal restrictions, had reverted to sanctimonious default mode, reciting the familiar parable that today’s superstar footballers have too much money and too few moral constraints. But then the subsequent omission of Rio Ferdinand from the England squad for failing to take a drug test, the arrest of a Leeds player in connection with an alleged sexual assault, and the threatened strike by England players, sent the media into self-righteous overdrive.

It is worth pausing at this point to consider the fact that no footballer has actually been found guilty of rape or sexual assault. Not that this has deterred our moral guardians in the media from passing judgement on the conduct of rich young footballers. Due process? Forget it. ‘Loaded and loathsome: the young stars going off the rails’, declared the Guardian (1). The Daily Mail slammed the ‘self-absorbed, multi-millionaire football princelings’ who ‘have drunk and copulated their way around the nightclub VIP areas, five-star hotels and exclusive resorts of the western world as if it were their due’ (2).

Footballers, it is argued, ain’t what they used to be. ‘Once there was a bit of infidelity, the occasional punch-up and alcoholism galore’, writes Tony Parsons in the Mirror. ‘Now we have stories of racist beatings (Leeds United), X-rated office parties (West Ham, Liverpool) and a team of loud-mouthed drunks (Chelsea) insulting American tourists at Heathrow as people jumped from the twin towers in New York.’ (3) Parsons contrasts the essentially benign rascal of yesteryear with the ‘ugly footballer’ of today (and we’re not talking ugly in the Luke Chadwick sense) who ‘is a scumbag – casually racist, and frequently drunk and violent’.

But Parsons’ sepia-tinted Hovis-advert view of the past doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Are footballers more casually racist than in the past? I doubt it. Casual racism was far more commonplace in the 1970s and 80s when the first wave of black footballers emerged in the British game. Today it is rare for black players to encounter racist abuse from their fellow players.

Similarly, the drinking culture too has also been steadily excised from the modern game, as top clubs have adopted continental-style diet and fitness regimes. If anything, young footballers today are less able to handle their drink than their forebears – which perhaps explains why they often act like idiots after a few pints.

Our perception that today’s footballers are drunken louts is also coloured by shifting social attitudes to drink-fuelled punch-ups. Drinking and fighting has always been part and parcel of working-class life – footballers included – but only now, preoccupied as we are with declining moral standards, is this behaviour seen as a problem.

Invariably money is widely blamed for the corrosion of behavioural standards among professional footballers. ‘[E]ver since the game’s senior managers raised the annual fee for televising the best matches from £5,000 a year from the BBC to £650 million a year from Sky, the greed and corruption within the sport have become practically uncontrollable’, bemoans Tom Bower (4).

Tony Parsons sees today’s footballers as ’60-grand-a-week boils on the face of humanity’ who are ‘corrupt to the core of their souls, ruined by money and adulation that came far, far too easily’. The Mirror‘s chief sports writer Oliver Holt believes that ‘English football is starting to drown under the weight of the misdeeds of a group of young men who appear to believe their fabulous wealth puts them above the law’ (5).

But underlying the charge that millionaire footballers have ‘too much too young’ runs a very old-fashioned snobbery. The subtext is that working-class people simply cannot handle sudden wealth. Invariably they will become spoiled or corrupted like the grotesque nouveau-riche caricatures in Mike Leigh films, or else they will fritter away their money like the 1960s pools winner Viv Nicholson of Spend, Spend, Spend fame.

Ironically, even when millionaire footballers are behaving like ordinary young men – drinking too much and getting into nightclub scraps – the corrupting influence of wealth is still blamed. Of course the allegation of gang rape is extremely serious but, if it is true, such a crime would not be typical of most footballers’ misdemeanours, which are predominantly drunken brawls and motoring offences.

Footballers, no matter how rich or famous, should not be above the law. But if players do break the law it’s a patronising cop-out to blame their inability to handle wealth and fame. They and they alone are responsible for their actions.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) ‘Loaded and loathsome: the young stars going off the rails’, Guardian, 4 October 2003

(2) Daily Mail, 7 October 2003

(3) Ugly truth about beautiful game, Mirror, 6 October 2003

(4) How Murdoch made our national game a law unto itself, Tom Bower, Daily Telegraph, 7 October 2003

(5) Two weeks that shook the game, Oliver Holt, Mirror

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Topics Politics

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