Facing Up to Footballers' Faults
But with age comes understanding, and a gradual acknowledgement that footballers are, for the most part, the sort of people you would leave a bar to avoid. The modern footballer stereotype – arrogant, conceited, boorish – obviously bears some truth, but closer consideration reveals that there is some heterogeneity within the group. Really skilful players – those whose trickery or passing can elevate the game above pure athleticism – can be the most eccentric. Glenn Hoddle may have been able to chip the Watford keeper and live contentedly in France, but he also thinks people with a disability are paying the price for sins in a previous life. Paul Gascoigne could transform a game through pace and guile, but his childishness would, in reality, be about as funny as slamming your hand in a car door, hiding as it does a man struggling to cope with adulthood. And Garrincha, one of the finest players the world has ever seen, lost his virginity to a goat. These are not idols. Even Pat Nevin, who read The Guardian, listened to The Cure and went out with Clare Grogan, still seems happy to spend his Fridays bantering with Perry Groves and Gerry Adams’ love child.
And yet, some footballers really do have hidden depths. Burnley’s Clarke Carlisle made presentable appearances on both Question Time and Countdown, whilst Racing Universitaire d’Alger goalkeeper Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. In fact, it was once the foreign footballer who was feted as offering something different in both skill and character. Whilst British players were stupid and crass, the foreign star was intelligent and cultured. Ossie Ardilles may have sounded like a pixie, but his flimsy skills made him loveable to old women and respected by young men. Eric Cantona is so French you could shove a baguette up his bum and call him un crayon, but his arrogance and temper have been reinterpreted as a massive Gallic shrug, which we grudgingly admire. Yet the grubby window that is YouTube can easily disabuse notions of foreign sophistication, as anyone who has seen Gerard Pique gobbing into the hair of one of Spain’s coaches on an open-top bus can testify. Young men who play football, wherever they were born, are often simply moronic.
But when does the character of a footballer affect us, the fans? I may not find Wayne Rooney’s aggression endearing, but I still prefer him to score goals for Manchester United than Manchester City. Does this make me a moral relativist, up there with Richard Nixon and Tony Blair? Whether the fans of Coventry City can blissfully ignore the presence Marlon King in their team may be a different matter. The actions of King, proven in a court of law, show that he has been a violent bully – a long way from Roy of the Rover indeed. But, arguably, the club is always more important than one player, and players will come and go. If Al-Saadi al-Gaddafi had been a hit at Perugia in 2003, I’m sure many of their fans would have reinterpreted his family’s sponsoring of international terrorism as freedom fighting instead. And if King helps Coventry stay in the Championship, there’s always the argument that everyone deserves a second (or fifth, in his case) chance. Ultimately, you do not need to like players as people, or even respect them. When a game begins, footballers are transformed into players, actors on a stage. And like theatre, watching football requires a certain suspension of disbelief. That is why morbidly obese men in replica shirts can accuse Frank Lampard of being fat, and players returning to their former clubs are sometimes treated with levels of vitriol once reserved for witches in the middle ages. The rules of normal life are frozen for 90 minutes, and whether the players who represent your club are people who you think might be good company is irrelevant. The status of the 21st century footballer will mean that the flaws of over-paid and immature examples are strewn across various media outlets, but stay away from the tabloids and mindless twitter feeds and you can continue to ignore footballers as men, and focus instead on footballers as players.