This weekend the England manager, Fabio Capello, was interviewed and, according to the papers, expressed regret (make that “shame”) for the World Cup failure (make that “disgrace”) of himself and his players (make that “the team that broke a nation’s heart”). Elsewhere, on an altogether humbler scale, there was the inevitable sex story. The gangly Spurs striker Peter Crouch’s moment of shame occurred when it was claimed in a Sunday paper he had enjoyed a quick olé, not once but twice (back of a taxi, then a hotel room) with a Spanish prostitute while at a stag party in Madrid.
Those who moan about the moral decline of football like to complain about those who play it professionally. On the pitch, the modern player is said to be dishonest, petulant and either not committed enough or too committed. Off it, he is greedier, more pampered, vainer and randier than his noble forbears.
In fact, given the celebrity madness and the money which is now part of Premier League football, it is odd that players have not changed more. They have always had egos, been unreliable and moody, have been drunk at the wrong times, and have found themselves in bed with the wrong women. They are young, well off, fit and the object of attention from those who can offer fun and temptation; what else would you expect?
On the other hand, the effect of this new, glossy, jetset style of football on those who watch it and comment on it has been disastrous. The modern game has brought out the very worst in our national character.
We habitually delude ourselves, for example, that our national team is better than it is, and then rage pathetically when that absurd optimism is confounded, searching angrily for someone to blame. Consistent with previous setbacks, the England team’s performance in the World Cup this summer was a disappointment, an under-performance, but only a nation whose collective brain has been addled by over-expectation would attach the word “shame” to it.
Shrewdly, Capello has played the media game, delivering the obligatory apology, but, like his predecessor, he must quietly wonder to himself at the oddness, the proneness to emotional hysteria, of the nation whose team he now manages. Much of the emotionally dysfunctional attitude towards the players themselves comes from the same source – envy. Peter Crouch is hardly the first young Englishman to have misbehaved, even twice, in a sozzled moment at a stag party, and yet, according to the stern moralists of the media (who of course would never dream of doing such a thing), he deserves the kind of sanctimonious scolding in which the British press specialises.
Sex-and-football stories are published to titillate sexually frustrated readers, but that hardly explains or excuses the level of moral disapproval. Few of us, given the opportunities on offer to Premier League footballers, would reach for the smelling-salts and run away. Once one remembers that jealousy, that most familiar and under-estimated of vices, is behind much of what is written and spoken about football, then the emotion and the nastiness become easier to understand.
It is a sport. When a team loses, even unexpectedly, it is not a national scandal or a matter for shame. Those who play it are humans; it is absurd to expect them to behave like members of the Synod of the Church of England. In English football, it is not the managers and the players who are on a terrible slide into moral decay. The problem is with those who watch them, torn between adoration and envy, loyalty and resentment.
Independent, Tuesday, 10 August 2010