Football. I used to love football at school. Jumpers for goalposts, chopping the legs off some kid from a rival form in sickeningly brutal tackle, one man Wembley, curving pass to the tall lad whose hormones had woken up early and made the rest of us look like hairless dwarves. But that was playing. From one bell to the other wed be kicking each other up in the air, crafty shimmies, dropping the shoulder, artful feints, going past three, sneaky elbows, catching the trailing leg of some fucker who thought he was Zico streaking down the wing. That said, sexy game though Ruud Gullit may believe it to be, football is not porn. Watching it does not encourage me to take part myself. And my days of trap, dribble, shoot! are gone.
At work Im surrounded by canteen pundits. Dave and Tim, the Saint & Greavsie of tea break. Johnny doing his Gary Linekar Football Focus spiel over a cheese bap. Each with their own loyalty to some local firm. The Tarn, the Blades, the Owls, Donny Whites, the Mighty Millers, Dirty Leeds. But the thing is, I sense that these men were shit at the game when they were at school. Always picked last, toe bunging passes at oblique angles, screaming foul when they got scythed down by a perfectly honest sliding tackle. But now, thanks to Sky+ and parroting the words of Alan Hansen, theyre all experts. I think Tommo needs to use a squarer back four. Hes playing Matty too wide, the lads natural game is on the instep, the long ball is a blind alley when it comes to youth development but Ritchie just cant see it Every burst of Sky Sports 1 with Vicky Gomersall (phwoar!) is like a testosterone shot in the arse. England internationals dissected and discussed like the battle plan of the Somme; the resemblance is there, Ill give em that. Chest slapping masculinity. I know about football, Im one of the lads, OK so I secretly fancy Joe Cole but Im still a blokes bloke Bollocks. Youre just an annoying fucker. Now switch the telly over and lets have some Murder She Wrote.
And then there are the players and clubs themselves.
One can ask what is the effect of a large reward on the perception of a pleasant task. The answer is unequivocal: it devalues the task in the eyes of those performing it. Nursery school children were provided in their playtime with brightly coloured Magic Markers and attractive drawing paper. Those who showed an interest in drawing were subsequently given the same apparatus in the classroom and encouraged to draw. One group was promised a glossy certificate for good drawing, while another group was given no reward. Two weeks later the material was again provided and the children were told it was up to them whether they wanted to draw or not. The group previously given the certificate showed a marked decline in interest, while the other group drew as much as they had done in the previous two sessions. Presumably the children thought that drawing could not be much of much interest in its own right if a reward was needed to make them engage in it.
From Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
Jules Rimet is no longer gleaming. English Premier League footballers were recently polled and asked which award they would most like to win. Of those that spoke English and could understand what the pollster was on about 5% opted for the World Cup, a further 7% said theyre dream was to lift the Premier League trophy. A whopping, overwhelming 87% stated that the highest point in their career would be to receive at a lavish bash surrounded by their envious peers Hello! magazines best haircut of the year.
If the Magic Markers were on offer again, Wayne Rooney said he was hoping to bag a bit of wall space on Tony Harts Gallery and celebrate with a gummy one from some Granny in the Piccadilly area of Manchester.
The Premier League clubs are huge corporate leviathans. Humourless and remote from the indigenous fans. Owned by billionaire football dilettantes or anonymous corporations out to diversify, to get some tax relief, to add a cool club badge to their portfolio. Staffed by players who have no loyalty or pride in the club they represent. No sense of history. When Brazilian Robinho moved to Manchester City from Real Madrid for £32½ million in September 2008 he immediately endeared himself to the faithful and indicated his passion & commitment to the club by telling them how chuffed he was to be playing for Chelsea. Oops, I meant Manchester Erm Looks at his agent. Manchester City. City? City. Yeah, Manchester City! Big smile, hold the shirt aloft, flash photography. Job done.
I remember when John Barnes (fucking useless, lets face it) was on £800 a week at Liverpool. Back in the late 80s. A lot of money for the day, a lot of money today. But not hugely excessive. Man-bag obsessed Cristiano Ronaldo is on contract for £120,000 per week at Manchester United. A hundred and twenty thousand pounds. Every fucking week. A worker on minimum wage in the UK wont pull this amount of money in over the course of a decade. And this bloke gets that every week for playing a game. Even poor old John Barnes would have had to keep on playing until 2140 to claw in what Ronaldo takes home a year. And with Graham Taylor in charge hed probably have got the chance.
OK, I can see the argument. The club is generating income through the work I do, why shouldnt I take a decent percentage of the money it earns? The wage bill of most clubs is now over 50% of income. It has logic to it. And certainly before 1961 and the days of the Players Maximum wage when even top flight legends like Stanley Matthews and Nat Lofthouse were only allowed to take home £20 a week the system was wrong. But a were the masters now philosophy has ripped the heart out of the game and distanced the players from the people who go through the turnstiles to watch them perform. Because surely not many people will agree with FIFA President Sepp Blatters comments over the recent Man U/Real Madrid spat concerning Ronaldo: There is this slavery in transferring or buying players here and there. Slavery? Just a sec, didnt Ronaldo sign the contract himself? And its not the fucking Bay City Rollers were talking about here. Evil managers signing away the souls of impressionable teenagers. Stick your name down on this bit of paper, Les, Im going to make you a star Och aye! No, Ronaldo is surrounded by a coterie of advisors and middle men. Agents, lawyers, a stylist, tarot car reader, foot spa plugger-in-er. He knew exactly what he was getting himself into and his petulant boot stamping sums up the spoilt, self-obsessed attitude of the typical footballer these days. They behave like over-grown children.
Which brings me to my next gripe. We are in an age where children are bred for sport. Like pedigree dogs or Champion vegetables whose growth is forced under glass. The Williams sisters in tennis. Ivan Lendl the most boring but most successful of 80s tennis stars chained to the court by his dominating mother. Tiger Woods in golf. Virtually every player in todays Premier League. The parents have a goal vicarious, avaricious, take your pick and the children are groomed to achieve that ends. Which perhaps goes some way to explain the lack of personalities in modern sport. There are no George Bests in the Premier League, no Rodney Marshs, not even resilient hard nuts like Billy Bremner. And, like him or not, its unlikely that well see the likes of Paul Gascoigne again. So much effort has been expended on technique, fitness and a regime for success that no time was spent on developing a personality. Can you honestly imagine having a good laugh with David Beckham? Enjoying being in the company of Peter Crouch? Sharing a naan with Joey Barton over a super-strength Cobra? David Beckham is no Bobby Moore or even high-kicking, Rimbaud quoting Eric Cantona. Hes a brand name. And like all footballers brand obsessed. David Beckham Ltd. Frank Lampard Plc. Roy Keane, the Old Trafford legend who lambasted, amongst other footballing aberrations, Manchester Uniteds executive box dwelling fans (the prawn sandwich brigade), summed up the modern player: These so-called big stars are people we are supposed to be looking up to. Well, they are weak and soft.
Then again, would you have bought Nobby Stiles signature collection aftershave?