The staggeringly pretentious footballer
The Secret Footballer reveals more about today’s elite loathing of football players and fans than it does the dark reality of the beautiful game.
Since the beginning of 2011, UK broadsheet the Guardian has been running a column written by a professional footballer. That in itself is hardly unusual. But what sets this column apart from the usual phoned-in copy that named pros produce is that its source is anonymous. So, thankfully, the self-censorship that usually renders footballers’ public pronouncements so bland is absent here; in its stead you get the truth, warts, WAGS and all. Hence the subtitle to the newly released book based on these columns: I am the Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game.
That – ‘explaining how football really works’ – is at least the ostensible point to all the half-veiled indiscretion. And, admittedly, there is insight to be found here. His description of the development of the tactical side of the game certainly opened the eyes of this reviewer, albeit one whose own experience of football tactics amounted to Mr Briggs’ entreaties: ‘if in doubt, kick it out’; and ‘zonk it, Blackie’. Instead, football has never sounded more complex: ‘Every player has his own script: what to do, when to do it, information on the player he’s up against, including weight, height, age, strengths, weaknesses, even what that opponent is likely to do when the ball comes to him in certain situations.’ Players will also be aware of the scripts of team-mates, too, from what passes are likely to be on in certain sitautions, to what runs are to be made.
And if you really like your football conceptual, he provides some interesting thoughts on the de facto death of offside, the end of wingers and why tackling should no longer be considered a skill. ‘Football at this level is very chess-like, certainly to those inside the game.’
He also offers a nice, if familiar, riposte to those who drone on about footballers being role models. ‘While I’m not condoning some of the things that players do, if your son or daughter is copying them, ask yourself why they’re taking more notice of a Premier League footballer than they are of you.’ Quite.
But there’s something that grates about the whole exercise. For a start, the secret footballer is also a staggeringly pretentious footballer. We’re told of his love for the works of ‘Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce etc’, that the idea for the column came from a secret-estate-agent column in the ‘weekend edition of the FT’, and that he loves, just loves, fine wine. At one point he writes, without irony, that before a game at Anfield, he ‘had a brush with something that Marcel Proust describes as “a remembrance of things past”‘. And he’s not talking about the odour emanating from Kenny Dalglish.
There’s nothing wrong with intellectual aspiration, of course. But the secret footballer wears his learning so heavily. Enjoying classic literature seems to be valued less for its own sake than for the extent to which it marks him out from the crowd of other footballers. His self-conscious intellectualism affirms their philistinism; he’s the Proust-spouting exception that proves the Beano-reading rule.
At points, such is the high opinion in which the secret footballer holds himself, the narrative becomes almost Pooter-esque. You do wonder if the secret footballer is actually the creation of an arch humourist. At his first professional club, for instance, the secret footballer is not exactly a hit with his team-mates. To the reader, accustomed to our hero’s cosmic pomposity, this is hardly a surprise. To the secret footballer, it is unintelligible. They used to do a collective ‘shhh’ when he tried to speak; they took his mobile phone and texted the manager to ‘thank him for last night’; and during training they would hammer ‘passes’ at him. True to form, the secret footballer blames it on their inferiority rather than what stares the reader in the face: our hero’s impressive levels of self-regard. There are none so blind to their own failings, it seems, as those convinced of their rectitude.
Even his near abstinence is unwittingly comic: ‘I have never even had a lap dance because I can’t see the point of getting myself worked up without the end product.’ Focusing on the technical rather than the moral, Alan Partridge couldn’t have put it better.
But there’s something else, too. Published in the Guardian, the secret footballer is very much a Guardian-reading footballer. He doesn’t so much lift the lid on the beautiful game, as peer at it from the perspective of a Premier League-hating, bling-bashing columnist. The result is more broadsheet prejudice than insider illumination.
Nowhere is this clearer than when he addresses the issue of racism within football. ‘The truth is, racism is still a problem’, he asserts darkly. As if to ramp up the revelation to come, he then writes: ‘this may alarm some people’. What could he be about to reveal? That African players are forced to get into their kit in separate changing rooms? That non-white players are paid less? That Stoke City manager Tony Pulis ‘blacks up’ at the Christmas party while singing ‘trigger, trigger, trigger’? Not exactly: ‘At every club I’ve been at, there has been a black player and a white player who have their own unique relationship, which at times leads to them making racist remarks to each other that nobody else in the changing room could get away with. Yes, the players involved are laughing with each other, but for me that doesn’t make it right.’
So, two players in a ‘unique relationship’ – for the sake of argument, let’s call them friends – make fun of each other using racial terms. And they laugh about it while doing so. That doesn’t sound like racism to me; it sounds like taking the piss. The secret footballer has merely introduced today’s PC etiquette, where words are immediately identified with thoughts, into a non-PC environment. The context in which the team-mates’ words have their meaning, and the intentions and motivations of those involved, are disregarded. All that matters is the abstract existence of certain terms. Lifting the lid, it seems, also involves colonising the dressing room with the thought police.
When the Guardian-reading footballer is not peering down his righteous nose at his fellow professionals, he’s cocking a snook at the equally uncivilised people who watch the game. ‘I don’t want to start bleating’, he bleats, ‘but what I do find odd is that it is now very easy to get sent off the pitch for foul and abusive language, yet much more difficult to get thrown out of a football stadium for the same thing… We all see and hear outrageous remarks that go unpunished.’ And the fans, he argues, should be punished. Having once again judged words abstracted from their distinct context as part of football rivalry, he is then able to suggest that ‘foul and abusive chants’ offer us ‘a precious insight into society as a whole’.
Except of course they don’t. Rude chants offer us insight into the nature of football-specific animosities, not society-wide antagonisms. When Spurs fans used to sing that their ex-player Sol Campbell had HIV and ought to be dead, it tells us what they think about him moving to their arch rivals, Arsenal. It does not tell us about people’s attitudes towards HIV sufferers, or even towards Campbell the person. Likewise, when opposition fans taunt carrot-topped footballer Dave Kitson with ginger chants, this is not evidence of some deep desire to purge society of those with a particular hair colour. It is evidence that they want to wind-up a wind-uppable opposition player. And that is certainly what our thin-skinned footballer is: easy to wind-up. ‘I have frightened myself by how worked up I’ve got because of silly things like derogatory singing and name-calling.’ Which is precisely why fans do it.
Of course the big question is, who is the secret footballer? The answer, one suspects, like the attitude of this prejudice-riddled volume itself, lies in a high-minded broadsheet.
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.