With a record haul of gold medals apart from when rope climbing, tug of war and ballroom dancing were de rigueur in the Olympic Games, Stephen Goldsmith wonders why the public and press alike love to love our cyclists, rowers, dressage riders and triathletes while despising those involved in ‘the beautiful game’ …
Well thank God the Olympics have passed and we can get on with the football eh? A Community Shield game and an England game already done and dusted and I have resisted all temptation to write about London 2012. Until now! Kind of. Just think of me using the games as a platform to have a moan. I love moaning and using the term debate as a euphemism to cover that fact up, is even better.
If I can take you back to the middle Saturday of the games, the night when the gold rush started in the track and field events. Citizens of countries that don’t excel in cycling or rowing events are hardly likely to have been exposed to our marvellous achievements in the velodrome or on the water, making the efforts of Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farrah particularly proud moments to be a sports enthusiast. The track and field events are the ones that produce instant international association with the famous games themselves and it was all a little too enjoyable.
Then the football ruined it.
I (like the majority of the watching public) had the men’s Team GB football side on the reserve list that evening and as Mo powered home and reduced the British public to emotional wrecks, the football match was about to enter the all too familiar penalty shoot out as I reluctantly changed the channel to view it.
I doubt anything, at any time, in any walk of life could have highlighted the refreshing change that this fortnight has brought to us all. Then came the contrasting fortunes of Team GB’s footballers bowing out to a Jiiiiii inspired South Korea side that night. I could hear the collective grumbles of the entire nation bemoaning how typical it was for football (and penalty shoot outs in particular) to ruin things. Even more painful reminders came crashing down into the heads of Sunderland fans as Daniel Sturridge’s little pre-run up and dummy brought the inevitable disaster that follows that particular manoeuvre – the epic failure. An epic failure of Jeff Whitley proportions. Unless you’re John Aldridge, then never try this as some sort of keeper distraction. It just doesn’t work.
The result of this was inevitable comparisons between athletes and footballers, especially from those who can’t help themselves from having a go at the latter. It’s been two weeks since that Saturday and the comparisons are still gushing in like some sort of lemming powered tsunami and I’m not sure it’s entirely fair.
Especially when some of it, as always, seems to be based on the national obsession of how much footballers earn. It’s irrelevant, unnecessary and tedious. Don’t get me wrong. There is much I would like to see change in our generation of spoilt footballers. I could hold an entirely new and full-blooded debate on where they go wrong and how they could learn from some of all this. Indeed I will touch on that later, yet while measured and constructive criticism regarding the morals and behaviour of some of our footballing elite are more than welcome, I would call for a re-think before simply using the Olympics as just another stick to beat them with.
Football is a multi-billion pound industry and its top entertainers should have a right to earn a large portion of that money, the same way in which Hollywood actors do when they are in high demand. I am the first to criticise the likes of Bent and Gyan when their thirst for cash goes too far; and when the likes of Man City throw a quarter of a million pounds a week at players at will. Then its quite ridiculous, of course it is. It isn’t as clear cut as that though and easy to resort to a lazy comparison. The global monster that is football in this modern era, sets it apart from the individual amateur events that are made up to collectively form the Olympics. I feel it is possible to enjoy both without having cheap shots. The Olympics is a monster of an event in its own right, of course, and a very enjoyable one at that. But when I hear people claim football is in the dirt and can’t unify people in the same way the Games have done, I have to disagree.
Nothing unifies people like football. Nothing is as globally available to children and adults on a daily basis. Children of all ages and social backgrounds are offered the chance to use football as a platform to better themselves, keep fit and become part of a group. And as a coach myself I see regular voluntary work within the sport that is unparalleled to any other. I wonder if all these band wagon jumpers will be attending their local athletics events in the near future, and investing their hard earned cash into it. Will the athletics events in the Gateshead Stadium start rivalling the Stadium of Light and St James’ Park for attendances? Thought not.
But I suppose that’s part of the problem. It seems that football and its professionals have become a victim of their own success. Of course it was a breath of fresh air to see our athletes in down to earth interviews on the telly. Of course it was a hugely refreshing change to those dull interviews and predictable media-trained answers with which our footballers present us. But we have to remember why this is common place.
People are shy in comparing how our footballers are targeted in a way athletes could never imagine. Even global superstars like Usain Bolt have it fairly easy. As he approached one of his big races during the games, he was photographed partying until 3AM in his room with the Swedish female handball team. Now there was apparently no alcohol involved but imagine that being Wayne Rooney on the eve of a World Cup quarter final? You don’t need me to tell you how people would react.
Even the disgraceful actions of badminton players attempting to lose games wasn’t really covered extensively. Not in the manner that created some sort of world wide scandal and media fest in the way it would have if this was a World Cup game – hell, if this was any game of football. Until Olympians have their every move and decision questioned, until they have their heads turned by agents and their pockets lined with gold in the manner in which top level footballers do, I think the whole comparing process is slightly weak in substance. Usain Bolt has all the advertising endorsements and is undoubtedly a house hold name, but he doesn’t have an agent in his ear saying “change running clubs son, and we can make a fortune”.
Not that footballers couldn’t learn the odd thing from some of the personalities that we have seen in the last fortnight. ‘Down to earth’ is a phrase that doesn’t do the humility displayed by our Olympians justice. But the way Steve Kean interacted with fans on holiday last year- only for it to be posted on You Tube as a stitch up- and then the way the incident subsequently provided him with a lawsuit, seems to offer some justification for the way in which the footballing family communicate with the public. And it offers reasonable explanation as to why they’re trained into offering dull and predictable cliches.
As ill advised as Kean’s comments were, they were clearly intended to be crowd pleasing and weren’t supposed to be public, and the incident reflects why those in football feel that nobody is can be trusted. I would still like to see them try, however. It would be nice to think that footballers could connect with the people who are major contributors to where they are today i.e. the fans that make their careers possible. I suppose there’s a fine line with trust, especially when you’re in the public eye and an easy target for a scandal story. Our new signing Carlos Cuellar has openly engaged with fans on Twitter. Some question how reputable Twitter is for reference. Not me. Words straight from the horse’s mouth with no dressing up. No question, trivial or creative, appears to be too much for Carlos to answer at present and it’s like a breath of fresh air.
It’s only a little gesture but I can guarantee that it gives him a huge head start here and it’s the closest we’re gonna get to a player walking in your local and having a pint with you. If this was the norm then some of this anti-footballer feeling may go away. Roy Hodgson has said the Olympic games were a wake up call for fans and players alike. And that’s the point right there. The same fans who abuse players no end must learn that it’s a two way thing. Players need to learn it won’t harm to turn off their Ipods, take their earphones off, lift their hoods up and speak to fans every now and again. Hell we might even get them to stop diving. Well we can dream can’t we?