‘Vain, illiterate, millionaire, borderline rapists, whose job is it to shepherd a bit of leather into an outdoor cupboard’. Alas, as much I would like to take credit for this quote, I must pay due deference for it to the brilliant comic stylings of Bristolian media-vagabond comic-come-musician Bill Bailey. For me, it encapsulates about 99% of the U.K population’s perception of modern-day professional footballers in England (particularly English), more succinctly than I, and I daresay another 99%, could ever wish to. Of course such a view is supported by rainforest-ravaging amounts of newspapers (particularly those of the red-topped variety), infinite amounts of bytes on the blogosphere and, indeed, that eternal spoilsport for awkward contrarians; reality.
I think it’s fair to say that are some less than admirable characters plying their trade in the upper echelons of British football. And, at least, on the face it, football is ‘just a bit of fun’ so, in this sense, I’m with the zeitgeist. But increasingly, many have come to thinking that the aforementioned unsavouriness of many footballers’ characters and the ‘shallowness’ of the game itself, disentitles the players from the admittedly gigantic salaries that many of them are on the receiving end of. So I am hereby taking up the thankless task of the proverbial fish swimming against the tide, in offering some defence of the wage packet of the archetypal, modern-day, star footballer. And indeed, that that prototype is not inherently a mere verbose euphemism for ‘twat’. Wish me luck….
The standard line of argument from those who think that professional footballers are not entitled to their riches runs that soldiers/firemen/doctors (common examples) work much longer hours, in worse working conditions, risking/saving lives, for far less money. Now, obviously, these facts about these professions are…well, facts and I am going to make no attempt to morally justify them. To say that people who ‘just kick some leather around’ are of more worth than these people who work in what I and the vast majority believe to be, very important, noble professions.
What I will do though is offer some account of the importance of football to me and millions, nay billions, worldwide. Football is our national sport and, to a large extent, part of our national identity too; rightly or wrongly, it just is. Around 7 million people are recorded as playing football in the U.K and that doesn’t even include those who only play kickabouts or watch the game. Admittedly, coming from Wikianswers as it does, that figure is hardly a bastion of reliability, but football’s popularity can’t be reduced to mere dots on a computer screen anyway. It fills the back and front pages. It fills stadia in tens of thousands. It is the vehicle upon which we’re sold innumerable rubbish (I remember buying loads of Mars bars during the last World Cup, fully aware of how easily I’d been duped). It effectively dominates all weekend daytimes from mid-August right through to May (and, bi-annually, June too). It provides a ‘real-life’ daily soap opera of bling, booze, bonking, break-ups and broken friendships. And it even ruins people’s relationships; ‘he (or ‘she’) just wants to spend time with the lads at the football’ is a common complaint of many maligned missus up and down the country, indeed, worldwide. Even football’s virtual form, specifically, the eponymous Football Manager games, has been the primary reason for separation cited in at least three divorce cases and an important factor in many more. If you still don’t believe me in asserting just how big football is, see the rise of increasingly infamous Truelad.
What would we males talk about if it were not for football (or other sports)?! Personally, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Other banter, such as last night’s shenanigans? Granted, yes. But, beyond that, I don’t know. Politics? A little bit, possibly, but then we’d just get confused, bored, depressed or a combination of the above. Our jobs? For a bit yes, but for the majority of us who aren’t tycoons, astronauts or plastic surgeons (premiership footballers are obviously out of the hypothetical anyway) this would often soon get fairly dull and repetitive. Popular culture such as films and T.V? Again, for a bit, yes, but after discerning how funny the show/film is, how much flesh is on show and how many explosions there are, that conversation will have often found its natural end. Ditto music, if you exclude the former qualification and substitute bangin’ riffs/basslines for explosions. Hell, without football, men may even be forced to talk about those peculiar things known as ‘feelings’.
It’s not just Britain though. Throughout much of the third/developing world (it’s hard to keep up with the new vogues in political correctness), the game is just as big, if not bigger, than it is here. In my gap year, I went to Cape Town, South Africa; of course, a colourful host to the most recent World Cup. Not wanting to get all “GAP YAH” on your posteriors (though I am about to…apologies in advance), it was genuinely moving to see how happy most of these kids were despite living with very little material wealth. It could just be wishful thinking, but I sincerely believe that a significant part of this was attributable to their daily attempt at emulating their heroes from the other side of the globe in the Premiership (by far the most watched league as their knowledge of it testified to) on the sorry excuse for a football pitch that Tamboerskloof’s unique combination of sand, dust, grass and mounds was. With all this in mind, the great Bill Shankly was probably only half-joking when he uttered his immortal soundbite: “football’s not a matter of life and death…it’s much more important than that”.
The seemingly unflappable, ever-perfect Mr. Obama demonstrated how powerful a motivator the concept of hope is and football it has it in bucket loads; hope that yours truly (who’s frustratingly mediocre) can once in a while glimpse the greatness of say Rooney’s bicycle kick; hope of a better season; hope of a new manager/centre forward; hope that kids from the tower blocks of East London to the suburbs of Surrey to the dirt pitches of South Africa’s townships to the favelas of Rio can, one day, lift that golden Jules Rimet for their country.
As we grow up and realise the sometimes harsh realities of life, we tend to forget all this in favour of the supposed injustice, jealously bemoaning ‘toiling in humdrum ‘nine-to-fives’, whilst they swan around playing football, fucking page 3 girls and, all the while, earning millions’. This point is illustrated brilliantly by a conversation between George Clooney’s character in the film Up in the Air as he sacks one of the workers. After announcing the sad news, he asks the despairing man: “Do you know why everyone looks up to sports stars?” The worker replies rashly “I don’t know…’cos they screw lingerie models?!” to which Clooney’s character replies “that’s why we adults look up to them…Kids admire them ‘cos they follow their dreams”. Being an American film, this refers primarily to other sports, but it’s a very prescient point that is applicable to premiership footballers too; we adults tend to forget or ignore the latter perspective on them, which is an important one too. There is no doubt the jealously of Prem. footballers is justified and that they often do some very distasteful things, but we’ve all done things we’re not particularly proud of (even if it’s not quite adultery and with a mate’s bird/ex. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great if players are ‘good role models’, but I’m not sure they should be under obligation to be, just as nearly everyone else isn’t. Besides, like the already anodyne interviews and press conferences, doing so might drive out the drama of the almost daily soap opera that is Premiership football.
Now I realise I’m presenting a view only slightly less biased than Fergie’s timekeeping to prove a point, but I’d like to think that I’ve shown that the happiness football should and does bring can be a very positive force for sustaining, changing, reforming, even saving lives. So, should the inspiration for this not be remunerated about as handsomely as many actors and musicians who also proffer such entertainment? God forbid, if, as I write this, I suddenly come down with a life-threatening disease and am presented with the choice of a doctor or a Premiership footballer to treat me, I would obviously plump for the doctor (unless it happened to be Arjun De Zeeuw in which case I’d have both) with his/her several years of training/experience and track record of saving lives. The point I’m trying to make is that, at their best, the professions have different worth and that the professional sports is far more analogous to the entertainment industry, amongst others.
Right about now you’re probably thinking ‘well that’s all lovely ‘n’ that, but he still hasn’t explained why the pay cheques of people in professions of merely ‘different’ worth are so radically different’. Ah, well for that, I’m afraid to say, I think the buck stops with us – the punters. Let me elaborate; for better or for worse, we live in a capitalist society, whereby, so long as it’s not illegal (‘immoral’ is a whole different kettle of fish), ideas/companies/people prosper or falter pretty much depending on need (or supposed need at least); supply and demand. Believe it or not, the general basis capitalism is founded upon is a power-to-the-people idea of ‘what the public want, the public gets’ (N.B. ‘founded upon’ and ‘resulted in’ are not necessarily the same). Football is without doubt a very competitive profession with the players at the top of the tree undoubtedly the very best at their trade (they may very well be lucky to do something they love, but it is ultimately still a profession). So, it could be argued that those at the very top of the pyramid, alike their counterparts in other, especially private sector, professions, deserve their handsome pay because their unique brilliance and, let’s not forget, their market appeal is in high demand and little supply and/or to give those billions at the bottom of the ladder a golden light to aspire to.
So, regardless of whether you agree with that, I think the ‘blame’ for the titanic wages lies not ‘upstairs’ with the ‘fatcat’ owners, the millionaire playboy dilettante star-striker or the agents who make Great Whites look like goldfish, but with us – the punters. Week in, week out, we buy the new FIFAs and PESs, buy the kits, buy the Sky Sports subscriptions, hell, buy the bloody club lampshades, but, most importantly, buy the tickets at, usually expensive, often extortionate, prices. So, my advice to you dear reader, is to either put down footballer’s seemingly black-hole-like pockets down to the unfortunate misfiring of the, personally, generally beneficial, capitalist system and/or watch this really rather wonderful BBC football video covering the whole gamut of human emotion and then try to disagree with me in asserting that football really can be ‘the beautiful game’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wS5Yz7XRwg&feature=related . After slight disillusion, I fell back in love with the game after watching it; I dare you not to too….