Should football-bashing be an Olympic sport?

Team GB success at London 2012 has become the latest platform from which to berate odious, overpaid footballers.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘How vile… Football is back’, screamed the Sun. No sooner had the Olympic flame been extinguished than the great British sport of football-bashing resumed in earnest.

The rules of this game are fairly simple. You just need to find a pretext, no matter how flimsy, to use one type of sport – in this case, the Olympics – as a stick with which to beat football. Too much money, too much hype, overpaid players, lack of sportsmanship, abuse of referees, abusive chanting – take your pick. The rap sheet against football is lengthy. British Olympians aren’t just faster, higher and stronger; they’re also politer, humbler and they play fairer, we are told.

Using other sports to disparage football has been a recurring theme in recent years. On those rare occasions when the British actually win something – the Rugby World Cup and the 2005 Ashes series spring to mind – football is usually given a good kicking. These assaults on Britain’s most popular sport are fuelled by a potent mixture of green-eyed envy of football’s riches and snobbish contempt for the ill-mannered oiks who watch and play the game. Naturally, as night follows day, once the Olympic circus has left town, our short-lived passion for obscure sports will soon disappear. Those running shoes and racing bikes, which we bought in a giddy fit of gold-medal fever, will be put up for sale on eBay. And people will be tuning into Sky Sports or flocking through the turnstiles in their millions to watch football.

Over the past two weeks, the whole country seems to have been swept up in a tsunami of sporting euphoria. It brought to mind Euro 96 – albeit without the heartache of losing to the Germans. This time, the Brits won stuff. Lots of stuff: 65 medals, 29 of them gold. That’s our biggest haul in living memory. Team GB omnimedalled. So, of course we’re entitled to dance in the streets, not to mention gently mock the underachieving Aussies.

However, some journalists couldn’t resist the opportunity to pontificate about football’s supposed moral deficiencies. ‘The Olympic Games set a standard that is perilously high for our prima-donna footballers’, wrote Steven Howard in the Sun. His colleague Rob Beasley was disappointed at the absence of Olympic spirit during a bad-tempered Community Shield game at Villa Park. ‘On the pitch, you hoped a triumphant Olympics had inspired a generation of footballers with a reputation for being overpaid, pampered and precious. It hadn’t’, he wrote.

Mick Dennis, writing in the Express, echoed these sentiments: ‘Footballers must start to show the affinity with fans the Olympians demonstrated. Footballers should appreciate the money and emotional investment committed by people who travel the land to support them… Footballers need to show respect and admiration for opponents and officials. Above all else, footballers must strive to emulate the humility in victory and grace in defeat which have been paraded in front of us this glorious summer.’ The finger-wagging at football hasn’t just been restricted to the players. The fans are also under fire. As Rob Beasley put it, at Olympic venues, ‘we were not subjected to grown men leaping to their feet to hurl abuse and insults at competitors either… or singing vile, X-rated songs at the top of their voices’.

‘What football can learn from the Olympics’ is the morality lesson du jour. Even prominent figures within football have been wearing a hairshirt and insisting that change is needed. ‘It is important players embrace what we have seen over the past two weeks and maintain it’, said FA chairman David Bernstein. ‘After the incredible high performance and sporting spirit we have seen at the Olympic Games, players must recognise that with the privilege of playing comes the responsibility for managing themselves in a similar way.’ England manager Roy Hodgson concurred. ‘We can always learn from the enormous grace and humility that the athletes showed in victory and being superb in defeat’, said Hodgson.

Do they have a point? Can football learn anything from our Olympians? Well maybe they could pick up a few tricks of the trade from Dave Brailsford, performance director of British cycling. But spare us the morality lessons about how footballers can learn from athletes about how to conduct themselves. Like it or not, football is a form of entertainment, not an instrument for moral improvement. Sure, we can marvel at how Usain Bolt and David Rudisha have redrawn the boundaries of human sporting possibility. But most of us follow football for very different reasons. We want our team to win but don’t expect Olympian perfection. Football is as much a social activity as a sporting spectacle. A football stadium is a haven where we can forget the daily drudgery and let off a bit of steam; a place where we can rant and rave and sing ourselves hoarse. So what if footballers square up to each other? Football would be a very dull game without its theatricality. We need heroes and villains. Whisper it, even a mass brawl can provide top-notch entertainment.

The fact that we can enjoy a bit of argy-bargy or sing obscene songs doesn’t mean we’ve lost our moral compass. Terrace banter might appear coarse, unforgiving and cruel. But, in reality, the pantomime trading of insults is largely theatrical and shouldn’t be taken seriously. We also know that hurling abuse isn’t acceptable in other social situations. We wouldn’t dream of behaving like that at work or in a restaurant. As we saw with the tributes from fans across the country to Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton midfielder who suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest, we know when to suspend hostilities and show respect. Nor is football devoid of sportsmanship. Every Saturday, you’ll see players kicking the ball out of play when an opponent is hurt, fans applauding an injured opponent as he is stretchered off, and players who have kicked lumps out of each other shaking hands and embracing at the final whistle.

I loved the Olympics. Couldn’t get enough of it. But why can’t people just celebrate a fantastic sporting festival without aiming below-the-belt punches at football? If you think that footballers are spoilt, overpaid brats or that fans are foul-mouthed louts, why don’t you do us all a favour and follow another sport? Football might be vulgar and coarse-mannered, but that’s just the way we like it.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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

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