Fans and football: another marriage on the rocks?

It’s not only Coleen and Cheryl who have fallen out of love with England players - the supporters are cheesed off, too.

Duleep Allirajah

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Tuesday night. I’m at home writing this column. More to the point I’m not watching the England game. Am I bothered? Not really. Missing a crucial Euro qualifier. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Have I fallen out of love with football?

The marriage between the British public and its national game is, if you believe what you read in the press, on the rocks. There were 2,000 empty seats at Wembley for England’s opening Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria. ‘A lot of England football fans are suffering from post-World Cup depression’, said Malcolm Clarke of the Football Supporters Federation. He added: ‘I’ve detected a great deal of disillusionment from fans.’ Steven Gerrard has admitted that ‘It will take quite a while to turn everything round.’

England’s miserable exit from the World Cup was followed by the usual bout of national self-flagellation. Our players are rubbish. They don’t play for the shirt. The manager is a gormless jackass. He got his tactics wrong in South Africa. He can’t communicate with his players. We can’t develop homegrown players. We don’t have any decent coaches. There are too many foreigners in the Premier League. It was a typically English over-reaction.

A common thread running through these gripes is the familiar refrain that money has corrupted football. Football’s new wealth has created a generation of mercenary footballers who are disconnected from the fans and who care more about their bank balances, Baby Bentleys and VIP lifestyles than playing for their country. They’re over-rated, overpaid and underperforming.

If England’s dismal performances in South Africa weren’t bad enough, there has been an endless stream of tabloid revelations and internet rumours about the personal lives of certain England players. They’re all at it like rabbits, allegedly. This week’s newspaper allegations about Wayne Rooney’s relationship with a £1,200-a-night hooker completely overshadowed the build-up to England’s second qualifying game against Switzerland.

A certain degree of disillusionment with the England team was inevitable after South Africa. No one wants to watch rubbish football. We might have binned our St George car flags, but does it follow that we’ve all fallen out of love with the game? If anyone seriously wants a divorce from football just because of a few dodgy performances at the World Cup, you have to question the foundations of the marriage. This is England we’re talking about, not Brazil. What else did you expect? England have been underachieving since 1966. Nor should crap football be grounds for divorce. If, like me, you follow a Championship team, then you already subsist on a diet of mediocrity, incompetence and perennial disappointment. Crap football is our lot. But no amount of misplaced passes and comedy defending can damage our devotion. Our love remains undimmed.

What is interesting about the current anti-England mood is that football fans largely make a distinction between bad performances on the pitch and bad behaviour off-field. While fans are angry about the wretched performances in South Africa, they are not really bothered about the players’ private indiscretions. I’ve heard quite a few fans complaining on football phone-in programmes that Wayne Rooney appeared uncommitted and lackadaisical at the World Cup. By contrast, I’ve not heard any fans clamouring for Rooney to be dropped for allegedly consorting with a prostitute.

The reaction to his reported infidelities has been more mirth than outrage. Rooney jokes are already whizzing around the internet. You must have seen them: ‘It’s great to see Wayne Rooney back on form. At long last he’s broken his prostitute drought.’ The football fans I’ve spoken to were more shocked that a millionaire England international needed to pay for sex at all. Surely Wazza could take his pick of the scores of ‘goal-digger’ groupies who are queuing up to bed a footballer for free? On the other hand, even with a freebie, there is probably a price to be paid in the form of costs of an injunction or a gagging order to suppress the subsequent kiss-and-tell story. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say.

It’s a shame that footballers feel the need to resort to the courts to prevent kiss-and-tell stories being published. As the reaction to the allegations about Rooney’s private life show, football fans are remarkably forgiving about what players get up to ‘off duty’. In Rooney’s case, our only concern was whether his domestic problems would have an adverse impact on his performances on the pitch. The answer, judging by his performance in Basel, is that his football hasn’t suffered. Even before he scored the opening goal against Switzerland, the chants of ‘Rooney, Rooney, Rooney’ were a good a measure of what the England fans felt about his off-field antics. In short, what he does in the privacy of his own VIP hotel suite is his own business. He can shag £50-a-trick grannies, high-class escort girls, or farmyard animals for all we care. No one gives a damn as long as he keeps finding the net.

If Rooney keeps delivering match-winning performances for England, the kiss-and-tell stories will be quickly forgotten, the boo boys will be silenced, the mood of national despondency will lift, and we’ll all fall in love with football again.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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