It’s a common assertion these days that footballers, particularly those playing at the top-level, should conduct themselves in an appropriate manner in order to present themselves as suitable role models for the millions of children who watch them every week and aspire to emulate them.
There is a surprisingly similar moral high ground amongst adults, who believe footballers’ actions both on and off the pitch directly affect the way our children act in society and are therefore keen to denounce any perceived indiscretions as a scourge on society.
Should the responsibility of providing a suitable role model for our children really lie at the feet of our Premiership stars? Has society deteriorated so badly that children no longer regard their parents as adults to aspire to and instead have to turn to players, who in most cases lead lives far removed from their own, for moral guidance?
Why are footballers held in such high regard? Certainly there is plenty to admire. Rising to the top of the game is no mean feat in this day and age. Competition is fierce with only the ‘creme de la creme’ making the grade. It requires determination, hard work and dedication in abundance, not to mention natural talent. The rewards should you make it are plentiful; the opportunity to play with and against the best players, in the greatest competitions, gaining adulation from the fans and taking home a healthy salary to boot. Not bad work if you can get it.
But for every upside, there is inevitably a down. While things are going well, footballers find themselves adored, with fans chanting their names from the terraces and the media happy to publish glowing reviews of their performances. Slip up, and the tables turn quickly.
Players have a duty to behave responsibly on the pitch. The rules of the game are clear and there to be adhered to. The ever-increasing displays of dissent towards match officials and the rise in violent incidents which appear to go unpunished in recent seasons, particularly among the so-called ‘top four’ teams in the Premiership, have understandably outraged supporters. It is beholden on players to show respect for authority and behave in a disciplined manner on the pitch. Not because a failure to do so will impact on society as some would lead you to believe, but because this is the behaviour children are most likely to emulate in Sunday league games all over the country.
What happens off the pitch is more of a grey area. Is how players spend their time away from football a matter for public consumption and moreover, do we have the right to judge how they conduct their private lives? Do indiscretions off the pitch bear any influence on how they perform on it? It could be argued that Wayne Rooney’s dip in form this season has coincided with the revelation of his encounters with an escort behind his pregnant wife’s back in the tabloids, but there is also strong evidence to suggest that the problem actually lies closer to Old Trafford than the striker’s home, particularly if the rumours of a strained relationship with his boss Alex Ferguson are to be believed.
John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy by manager Fabio Capello following allegations he had conducted an affair with the ex-girlfriend of former team-mate Wayne Bridge, even though the Italian admitted he had no qualms about Terry’s behaviour on the pitch. Ironically, with Rio Ferdinand’s continued absence from the squad through injury and Steven Gerrard also ruled out, it is rumoured that Terry is likely to regain the armband for next month’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Wales.
Footballers today find their lives subject to intense scrutiny, with the tabloids eagerly sniffing out any hints of a perceived scandal. The latest target is Everton’s Jack Rodwell, exposed in Sunday’s press for reportedly sending explicit images of himself to Jennifer Thompson, the same escort who gained notoriety as a result of her liaisons with Rooney last year. While his actions may be ill-advised given the likelihood of the story finding its way into the hands of the press, Rodwell is a single 20-year-old man and what he gets up to off the pitch is his own business.
Players hitting the headlines is not a new phenomenon but in the past, footballers were lauded for their playboy lifestyles, with the likes of George Best and Frank McAvennie revered for their love of champagne, partying and women. Paul Gascoigne, despite his problems with alcohol and domestic violence has always been revered as one of England’s finest, with fans prepared to overlook indiscretions off the pitch and focus on footballing talent.
Nowadays, the emphasis has shifted. Whether it is a change in society or a consequence of the Premiership becoming a global brand and attracting worldwide attention, footballers are seemingly being held to account more for their actions off the pitch than on it. Undoubtedly, players find themselves in a privileged position that most of us can only dream of, earning wages on a scale far beyond our comprehension. Does it naturally follow that this should be used as a stick to beat them with, should they fail to meet our expectations of what constitutes acceptable behaviour?
In many ways, while players can seem far removed from our everyday lives, the advent of social networking sites such as Twitter, offer a medium for fans to get closer to their idols. An increasing number of current and former players now choose to interact with their supporters through such sites, with some like Rio Ferdinand. currently spending more time on Twitter than he does on the pitch.
Fans want players to come across as ‘one of them’; someone they can relate to. Sites like Twitter make this appear possible. Yet herein lies a paradox. Safe behind the security of their keyboards, all too often these same ‘supporters’ relish the opportunity to dish out unwarranted abuse for any number of perceived misdemeanours, whether it be a poor performance on the pitch or simply an opportunity to drag up a story from the past and use it as an excuse to attempt to assume superiority. In just the last few days, the likes of Robbie Savage, Stan Collymore, Ashley Williams and Carlton Cole have all suffered at the hands of these ‘keyboard warriors’. While for the most part, the negativity is brushed off, with Savage in particular seemingly thriving on it, it is really acceptable for people to be subject to this kind of censure?
Footballers are human like the rest of us. There are not many among us without regrets or skeletons in our closets that we would prefer to keep private. The difference is, our dirty washing is not hung out for public airing, whereas players are not afforded that luxury.
Football is a sport loved by millions, but it is just that; a game designed to entertain, create debate and induce joy and pain in equal measure. Players are key in creating talking points with their displays on the pitch, but their duties end there. However you feel about their salaries and in some cases, their over-inflated egos, they are there to provide entertainment, not moral guidance. A reality check is long overdue.