‘Footballers are fat cats with six packs’

Ashley Cole’s misdemeanours have unleashed a tsunami of snobbery against wealthy working-class footballers.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

It’s been a good month to vent a loathing of all things associated with footballers. At the end of January news broke that John Terry, England and Chelsea captain, had been having an alleged fling with an ex-teammate’s ex-girlfriend. In keeping with the spirit of things, Terry soon became ex-England captain. As it turned out, Terry was just the starter, a morsel just to whet the disgust of the ever-growing army of footballer-haters.

Up next was the unexpected main course, Terry’s Chelsea teammate, Ashley Cole, a swaggering, shagging, blinged-up beast of a man – the quintessence of everything wrong with the modern-day footballer. This, after all, is the man nicknamed Cashley, following his admission that he had been ‘incensed’ that Arsenal had only offered him a weekly contract of £55,000; a man who, according to reports in 2008, was sick on a girl during sex, before saying that she should be privileged. But what made Cole more hate-worthy still was the fact that he was also married to popular TV presenter, popstar and weeper Cheryl Cole. For the critics at Ashley’s gates, his comeuppance – dumped, exposed and injured – has been gleefully seized upon.

There is of course nothing praiseworthy in cheating on your wife, whether, as with Terry, it’s allegedly with your friend’s ex, or, in Ashley Cole’s case, allegedly with any busty stunna with a large-screen mobile phone. But Terry’s and Cole’s failure as people, as private individuals, has clearly become something else in the public realm: it has become an opportunity to wheel out old snobby prejudices alongside new fears and loathings. With Ashley Cole its most hated embodiment, the modern footballer, has been turned into a symbol of all that is wrong with society.

A snobbish disdain towards footballers is not especially new, certainly since their profession began remunerating them with riches unimaginable to their Fifties and Sixties forebears. The ‘mock Tudor mansion’ seemingly so beloved of footballers became shorthand for their unspeakable vulgarity. They may have money, these working-class men, but they certainly don’t know how to spend it. So goes the aloof thinking. ‘Most [footballers]’, wrote one columnist, ‘are launched up the food chain without hope of using the right societal knife and fork. Few could identify the verb in this sentence. Ask them to distinguish between noun and adjective and silence falls on the back of the class. This is not to say footballers lack intelligence, only that the majority do not have a developed intellect. Wealth gives them power but little of the judgment required to process it.’

Footballers lack judgment, you see, or certainly the means to acquire it. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that there are others who do have the judgement required to deal with their immense wealth, those with the right background, the right upbringing and education, those whose lives of inherited luxury have taught them how to consume properly: these people have ‘class’, unlike Cole, unlike Terry, and unlike virtually every young working-class man plying his trade at a Premier League club near you.

In between purging the bile welling in his throat, columnist Simon Heffer found time to huff: ‘Like our country, [footballers] have lived on fantasy money for too long and, probably unlike our country, they will have to start making economies. When their large salaries go, so will their repulsive “lifestyles”. Second-hand Italian sports cars will flood the market. House prices in Alderley Edge will dip. Cristal will, perhaps, once more become a drink for respectable people.’ An insufferable, unabashed snob Heffer might be, but his views are not exclusive – he just states such views more honestly than most. Behind the hatred of the modern footballer lies a hatred of the type of person that becomes a footballer. They should know their place.

While footballers might have long been attacked for lacking the decorum befitting their wealth, in a political climate in which wealth is stigmatised, their error is all the greater. They do not exhibit the necessary austerity – they spend without contrition. In light of Ashley and Terry’s alleged misdemeanours, Daily Mirror columnist Tony Parsons was moved to declare that footballers are now ‘as smug, arrogant and full of themselves as bankers. Footballers are just fat cats with six packs.’

Yet if the tenor of recent commentary is anything to go by, footballers are far worse than bankers. In fact they’re considered virtually subhuman, animal-like. They ‘inhabit an immoral, decadent place where the rules of ordinary society don’t apply’, wrote one columnist. The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir went further: ‘Sex-obsessed Premier league footballers, whether married or not, operate in a moral vacuum where anything goes. For them, old-fashioned virtues of respect, honesty and decency are replaced by a kind of all-encompassing, Neanderthal sex and power lust.’ Noting their ‘nightclub swagger’, their ‘preening machismo’, their interest ‘in nothing but their own sexual gratification’, Moir concludes that, to their very core, ‘[footballers] hate women’. There you have it, not only are footballers as grasping as the fattest of fat cats, they are also women-hating beasts interested only in their own sexual pleasure. (Funnily enough, hordes of people didn’t complain about this Jan Moir column.)

There is a paradox here, of course. At the same time as the modern footballer has become an object of Orwellian-levels of hate, they are also expected to be role models, shining examples of moral probity. Last year, while revisiting a parliamentary debate from 2008 on the ‘insidious effect of bad behaviour of footballers on the behaviour of young people’, Labour MP Graham Allen called for footballers to be trained properly. Not as footballers though, but as something more akin to missionaries. ‘[Football] players must be taught the social skills to recognise the impact they have on others and be supported to become better role models on and off the pitch. As one police officer told me “they need to become professionals in the moral as well as financial sense”.’

This paradox is only superficial however. What unites the demonisation of the modern footballer, writ large in the fate of Ashley Cole, with the demand that they become role models, is the elevation of individuals’ private conduct into a matter of public importance. There is, it seems, a very thin line between becoming a ‘moral professional’ and a scapegoat. While the one embodies all that people ought to be, the other represents all that they ought not to be. It’s just that being sanctified or flayed alive have absolutely nothing to do with being good at football.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill defended ballsy WAGs like Cheryl Cole, who she felt was being castrated by her celebrity advisers. Mick Hume explained why the John Terry affair kicked politics off the pitch, and reflected on how football has gone from being viewed as a slum sport to a cross between religion, rock‘n’roll and royalty. Duleep Allirajah asked who wants a footballer for a role model Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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