Another vid; this time Leeds. It does burn, eh? That arrogance, that gulf of apparent indifference. Headsets on, blinkers on, dead souls dreaming of cornerflag dance-moves. Fans? What fans? ‘Banging choon, dis, Lukie!’
But friends we better acknowledge – because it’s surely fact? – that plenty of footballers are good guys (and gals). It’s just the other stuff that makes them seem like mindless twats.
In the last few days I’ve seen two England players – Trent, and Callum Wilson – project some authentic positivity and awareness. The Liverpool man has launched himself with some conviction into the flash but scandalously dumb world of the Academies. (Dumb because the Great Arrogance holds: that riches lie in wait; that the world will be scoured; that selection and development can be shite, because Everybody Who Could Possibly Have a Shot At This, is in the building. Dumb because a zillion players will be cut, with poor preparation and aftercare – hence the Trent Intervention).
Wilson, in #MOTD interview, spoke eloquently and wisely about poverty, exclusion, embarrassment. We do see this and we need to, partly because many of our footballers did come from ‘nothing’. Their background was scruffy and under-privileged. And it’s therefore only right that there are Football Officers at every club, doing real community work. So… how come we see that gulf, so often? Players behaving appallingly or heartlessly or with no feeling for either other people, or for the responsibilities they must know come with their profile? Do they know? Ain’t that part of the Academies’ job?
Lots of players are stupid. Some are genuinely arrogant and uncaring. It’s entirely possible that incident A/B/Z might trigger the concern that many lack any real understanding or attachment to what we the Solidly-Decent Ones might consider to be acceptable, non-negotiable values. Some of this crassness and delusion is learned behaviour, centred on or springing from the Academies and their status. And predicated on mind-scrambling money. Like the pandered elite, these kids really don’t need to care. They know they’re important, because the facilities and the environment infer that. Plus they have sixteen cameras on them, or will have. And some bloke will be thrusting an urgent ipad or a wee whiteboard under their nose(s), and they’ll be told to speak behind their hand, because they hold precious secrets. Everything’s vital; the game-plan, the barnet, the moves.
Truths do lurketh, but this provocatively traduces so much and so many. There are wonderful people working in football at all levels just as there are in cricket or any other sport. So the modelling of behaviours can be magbloodynificent, too. But footballers do seem to behave and/or react disproportionately badly, whether that’s ignoring or not even registering the existence of fans or cheating, faking or routinely and foully abusing officials on or around the pitch. (Bold opinion: footballers are shocking for this. As are managers, of course). Importance and self-importance must play a significant role, here.
Football People on your tellybox are very often lying, manipulating, or at the very least myopic. It’s accepted. Despite the physical impacts and clashes being patently less loaded (and therefore less provocative) than they were, footballers react badly very often, either being dishonestly ‘dramatic’ or plain cynical. Again, fascinatingly unknowable how much of this is bastardised vanity – stay down, roll around a bit, you’re on the telly – and how much tactical cuteness. (Milk it; make it work for you – their fella might get a card). Whatever, the void where the instinct-to-play should be, the ‘get up and crack on’ impulse, never mind the values-thing, is depressingly ever-present.
It’s also unclear how much of the poor behaviour is coached. If Zaha – now substantially reformed – was at one stage the most obvious diver in the Prem… was he coached to do that? Were Kane and Sterling coached to adjust and engineer and feel for ‘contact?’ Did they throttle back on that, somewhat, after Southgate had a word? I suspect that this is more learning-in-the-environment than explicitly instructed, but don’t tell me that strikers don’t get told to ‘go down’ if they feel a touch.
This asks questions of the leading managers: like who can we respect, for their civility? For their fairness?
Klopp is a good man, a Football Man who loves the game, his players and understands Liverpool. He gets most things, he has soul, you suspect, but even he explodes, outrageously at officials – as he did during the Tottenham game. (And don’t go telling me he was provoked. Unacceptable: he almost seemed to concede that by joking about his mid-abuse muscle pull). Pep is generally able to keep a lid on his emotions but does like the occasional incandescent rage. Arteta I find unlovable, for his own, peculiar, deeply-brewed, extravagant inflammations and that dark, pointy vitriol. Plus those strategic ‘break-up-the-game-by-going-down’ rotations. Given the extraordinary profile these guys have, their level of discipline and respect is obviously woeful – not just woeful. This is undoubtedly why the phrase ‘role-model’ has gone from the game – because many of the most central figures are too often an embarrassment.
For me the idea that we need to cut these fellas some slack, because of the intensity and pressure in the game, is cobblers. And ‘passion’ of this sort is not ‘part of the theatre’, (Mr TV Production Geezer), it’s part of the problem. Because, speaking as a sports teacher and coach, I can tell you that young people are influenced, negatively, by what they see. In games lessons – not games! – I have been harangued by kids who cannot accept my fairness and cannot control their emotions. I can think of a young, strong lad who ‘stays down’ for minutes virtually every time he experiences contact. (It’s absolutely hilarious; he will roll and silently fake deep, deeeep agony but it’s also weird… & depressing).
These kids think they are Kane/Sterling/those Gods on the Telly. When it comes to decisions, contention is their kind of default position, not acceptance. They are imagining the cameras, the spotlight, the high-resolution impact and import of this moment.
Let’s re-set. Because there are also moments when the likes of Match of the Day offer a glimpse of decency, social-conscience and intelligence. And may even evidence the care and commitment that can and does come from players – the best of it, away from the limelight. Alexander-Arnold and Wilson impressed me, over the weekend, and they are not alone in giving something back. I doff my flat cap – sincerely. But if we look at football behaviours in general terms, there is an argument that a crucial part of the sportsmanship*, the honour**, maybe even the point, is irretrievably gone. It ain’t coming back.
(For what it’s worth I’m sympathetic to this view, that we compete wholeheartedly, and therefore honestly***, and I register the slippage away with real sadness).
But does this then, overwhelm or preclude all other state-of-the-game hypotheses? No. We may think that in other general terms, football is as good or better than it’s ever been. City under Pep are amongst the most fabulous, watchable sides to have played the sport. Defenders are now more rounded players, more capable players than ever before. (They just can’t defend – lols).
I’m sympathetic to this view, too. Meaning that, spitting blood, I’m being bundled towards another unsatisfactory conclusion, both stylistically and in terms of meaning. The universe now has us where its cheesy, salesy Producers want: between, goddammit, beauty and the beast.
* & **. Yup, I know. Archaic or anachronistic. But also some truth, yes?
*** And yup, I guess I am saying we aren’t competing entirely wholeheartedly if we’re not competing honestly.