Offside, 10 September
The big match: self-important footballers vs self-righteous reporters.
On Wednesday night I was on the late train to Peckham when an Everton fan offered me an England t-shirt.
‘I ’ate England’, he told me in broad Scouse. ‘This bloke gave it to me cos I was celebrating a goal in the pub. But I was just pleased that Poland had equalised.’
The England players must think the whole world feels the same – how else to explain their reaction to the pelters they received following Saturday’s draw in Austria?
They gave away a two-goal lead, partly due to David ‘Calamity’ James’ inability to hold on to a perfectly unthreatening shot. The post-match coverage was damning. James was labelled a donkey by the Sun, whose readers then voted to replace him with a real donkey. Former England ‘legend’ Terry Butcher (legendary for the time he played on with a pouring head wound rather than for anything he did with the ball) criticised David Beckham for not having played a decent game in three years – capturing a widespread sentiment that Possibly The Most Famous Sportsman in The World has been struggling to justify his place for some time now.
After the Poland victory the following Wednesday, the players refused to talk to the press, in protest at the earlier coverage. Sven-Goran Eriksson explained: ‘The group has been badly criticised over the last few days. They try to defend every single player in the group. It is their way of protecting each other and they are fully right to do it.’
No, they weren’t. They deserved everything they got after a disappointing Euro 2004 and then letting slip a winning position in their next competitive game. The suspicion is that Beckham, Owen, James and others had become undroppable, even if they persistently underperformed, and the side was stale. As it turned out, James did get dropped for the Poland game, but it’s hard to believe the coverage had no influence on Eriksson’s decision.
If you’re going to receive all the fame and fortune of being an England footballer you have to accept that as well as being ludicrously hyped and praised you will sometimes be criticised. The footballing press should not be taken seriously. They are like manic depressives, either bouncing off the ceiling with joy or declaring that we’re doomed. A mature response from the players would be to accept both triumph and disaster for the imposters they are, as Kipling rightly pointed out. But these players only know Mr Kipling for his cakes.
If the players are self-important, the press is self-righteous. ‘Their collective reluctance to talk will be regarded as petty and needlessly militant and there is no doubt that it lets down supporters’, wrote Matt Dickinson of The Times. ‘It is petulant and childish. I can understand why they’re upset but the press are a link between the fans and the players’, said a scribe from the People.
What both sides miss is that the fans don’t really care. Are they really saying that the anodyne, shallow, cliché-ridden comments of players following a match are essential? We know already what they would have said:
‘The lads done brilliant…really worked together…point to prove…gave it 110 per cent…think we’ve got a good chance to qualify…we’ll take one game at a time…we’re right behind Sven….’ Need I go on?
This ego-driven relationship was well summed up by Oliver Holt, Chief Sports Writer (no less) at the Mirror. He noted the less-than-mature attitudes of England’s players – but his article, entitled ‘Pampered stars needed to take lesson in horror’, then descended into sanctimoniousness as he argued that it was only by going to see Auschwitz during their visit to Poland that brought the players some perspective on their celebrity lifestyles.
This is just the kind of nauseating attitude that makes Hollywood movie stars into the UN ambassadors, being photographed next to some starving African babies. They, like the footballers, will be photographed stumbling pissed out of The Ivy in a week or two.
Footballers are so often immature and selfish because childhood extends into adulthood far longer these days. As long as people can avoid responsibility for their actions, whether it’s living at home with mum and dad till you’re 30 or living a pampered lifestyle, they will continue to act like big kids. Footballers are just the most high-profile and obnoxious of these big kids.
And the reason football writers get so uppity about it all is because these glorified gossip columnists fancy themselves as the new Norman Mailers. If you really wanted to be a proper journalist, surely you wouldn’t have devoted your life’s work to writing about such inveterate dullards and arseholes.
Not that footballers being arseholes is a new trend. As a review of a new biography of a Brazilian legend in today’s Times notes: ‘Garrincha was the half-crippled, illiterate inspiration of Brazil’s football awakening. He was also a chronic alcoholic who lost his virginity to a goat.’
Our players may be selfish, pampered, whoring and sometimes downright racist, but I’ve yet to hear of one having sex with a goat. Even Wayne Rooney wouldn’t fancy that…would he?
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