“They’re all just so boring nowadays” – a common refrain about footballers today. But is the problem with them… or us? I think it’s largely with us. For many, the phrase harks back to a time before pasta, prohibited pints, Prozone, Sky football, all-seater stadia and foreigners; an era where players would have a drink with the fans in the pub after game. The golden era of football – supposedly (ignoring all the racism and hooliganism). But there are good reasons for the change in football – and footballer – culture, and a lot of them come down to us, the fans.
We’re so demanding about what players do these days, as if we want not only hope they are good role models but positively expect it. Admittedly, this is largely the media amplifying otherwise small concerns to sell papers. But this is part of the issue – players and clubs are so worried about the bad PR, they media-train players to within an inch of their life, squeezing out any character. Where’s the scandal, the rivalry, at the moment? The Keegan-Ferguson war of words? Cantona? (Ok, Balotelli is kind of equivalent to that.) Arsenal v Man United and Pizza-gate? Roy Keane v….well, the world? Much scandal today is comprised solely of Steve Bruce moaning about an offside decision. It’s very rare to see a player slag off the opposition these days, even if that’s QPR or Hull.
And you do not see many footballers expressing political views other than platitudinous – if thoroughly decent – stuff like ‘every kid deserves to grow up in peace’. It’s very rare for players to declare a party political affiliation, especially during their playing careers. Even for the Labour, which is arguably more likely to attract celebrities because left-wing politics is generally perceived as ‘nicer’ and less of a publicity risk. Regardless, footballers were notable by their absence from celebs professing party support at the last election (Frank Lampard quietly claiming to be a Tory and Sol Campbell, in retirement, criticising the mansion tax are two examples, but they are exceptions which prove the rule).
Not that I blame them. Recently, just look at the reaction to Myleene Klass criticising the mansion tax – fury and a petition for her to be sacked as the face of Littlewoods (yes, that well known charity which grew from being a betting company), as if views on taxation were as controversial as views on race or sexuality. Elsewhere, Gerard Piquet has been been criticised for comments merely supporting Catalans’ right to vote for their independence and Andy Murray got so much stick for his backing of independence he regretted sending his single, supportive tweet.
If you want evidence that the idea of footballers as ‘role models’ forces them to be act on some higher moral plane over and above the law, just look at the case of Ched Evans. Of course, the actions he was convicted for are abhorrent and I’ve got mixed thoughts on whether he should be allowed to play again for Sheffield United. But it’s unarguable that in most professions there would be no question that, having served his time, he could return to work and normal society. And, unlike a (more important) profession such as teaching or nursing, there are no direct reasons why his criminal conviction means someone who kicks a bit of leather around for a living is a threat to others in his job. Also, many fans feel betrayed when players ‘leave them’, as if footballers should be morally above the laws of free movement which everyone else lives by.
Other recent examples of mountains made out of molehills are Jack Wilshere getting a mauling in the press for – shock horror – having a cigar in a hot tub in Vegas in the summer break and outrage over Wayne Rooney swearing. This is all somewhat understandable – these guys are kids’ heroes (although I’d like to think parents and teachers influence kids more than footballers unknown on any personal level). My main point is that we cannot have our cake and eat it – demanding ‘characters’ in football yet jumping wholeheartedly on even minor transgressions.
Another apparent contradiction is the fans shout the most obscene things at footballers and expect them to be universally happy to interact with us. The Secret Footballer certainly has some strong things to say about fans – essentially, they’re all idiots, and many obnoxious so – suggesting many other players feel the same privately.
So, it would seem we can have footballers as ‘characters’ or role models – but not both.