Offside, 8 January

Reflections on football's Annus horribilis.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

The year 2003 was something of an Annus horribilis for English football.

Players behaving badly was the recurring theme. Football’s Year Of Shame began with anti-racists demonstrating outside Upton Park in protest at West Ham’s decision to sign Lee Bowyer, and it ended with Rio Ferdinand receiving an eight-month ban for ‘forgetting’ to take a drug test.

Remember Lee Bowyer? The ‘boozing, pot-smoking, violent, racist, cowardly, unapologetic, lying, odious’ scumbag as the Daily Mirror famously described him. ‘How are we to attract black and Asian fans to the Boleyn when we sign someone like Bowyer?’ asked anti-racist campaigners. A more pertinent question might have been: ‘How are we to attract fans of any colour if West Ham get relegated?’

As it transpired, Bowyer’s tenure at Upton Park did not ignite the race war in east London that some had predicted, but nor did it save West Ham from the drop. ‘I am following my heart’, said Bowyer when he signed for West Ham. However, as soon as the Hammers were relegated Bowyer forgot all about his heart and joined Newcastle United. Ironically he was subsequently criticised by Sir Bobby Robson for trying to avoid trouble. ‘In trying to present a clean image of himself, Lee’s not been as effective’, complained Robson. ‘Because of his reputation, he’s trying to be perfect. He’s not getting involved and not putting his foot in.’

The controversy over Lee Bowyer, however, pales into insignificance when compared to the carnival of moral indignation that gripped the media throughout the autumn. A series of scandals rocked football: gang-rape allegations involving Premiership players, Rio Ferdinand’s missed drug test, a threatened strike by England players, and a separate rape case involving Leeds United’s Jody Morris. ‘Voltures [sic] are circling’, declared TV pundit Rodney Marsh on his website. The once-beautiful game had now become a bit of a munter.

The general consensus among the sanctimonious press pack was that today’s young footballers were overpaid (ie, paid more than journalists) and over-sexed (ie, got laid more than journalists). The Daily Mail branded footballers ‘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’. The not-very-hidden subtext is that young working-class footballers simply do not have the maturity or breeding to cope with their sudden wealth and fame (unlike our royal family whose conduct is, of course, beyond reproach).

Even when rugby momentarily became the focus of the nation’s cultural life, some people still couldn’t resist having a swipe at football. ‘Rugby has taught soccer a lesson in how to behave on and off the field’, declared the Sun. Such is the inflated significance heaped on sport today that we expect our sportsmen to deliver moral education to our children. Even Gary Lineker and David Beckham, two footballers frequently held up as good role models, have been criticised recently for contributing to child obesity by advertising crisps and fizzy drinks.

What a load of cock! David Beckham’s job is to create and score goals – and to wear silly clothes – but he is not the custodian of the nation’s health. The same goes for Jonny Wilkinson, the nation’s latest sporting hero, who has been praised for his humility. Is humility a sporting attribute? Jonny’s job – from what I can see – is to kick an oval ball between two sticks, not to act as a behavioural template for our children. It’s the responsibility of parents to raise children, not Becks, Jonny, Rio or any other prominent sportsman.

The only useful thing sportsmen can teach us is how to excel and win at sport. It has been suggested that England’s football team – serial losers since 1966 – can rediscover the art of winning from their rugby counterparts. Really? The England rugby team’s winning-ugly mentality is admirable but, let’s face it, it’s not that difficult to be world champions in a sport that hardly anyone plays.

The England football team is full of players who know all about winning (plus a few Liverpool players), but the truth is that their international opponents are considerably tougher. A quick glance at the Euro 2004 roster – which includes France, Italy, Holland, Portugal, Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic – tells us that this is a far more competitive tournament than rugby’s so-called World Cup.

Which brings me to my New Year’s resolution. I’ve decided to initiate the Jonny Wilkinson backlash. Is it just me – and I fear it might be – or does anyone else find Wilko crushingly dull? Like Michael Owen, he’s way too clean-cut to be a proper sporting hero in the Maradona or George Best mould. After England’s World Cup victory he should have been out caning the amber nectar all night long, but instead he went to bed early. What a wuss!

According to a recent poll, Jonny is the person most of us wanted at our Christmas dinner. The modest, well-spoken, publicity-shy Wilkinson, it seems, is the perfect role model for our anodyne risk-averse times. And I can think of no more damning indictment than that.

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Topics Politics


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