Off The Record – Footballing Myths

Today, 19th September, marks the 5-month anniversary of Soccerlens (yay!).

In this short period of time writing about football I’ve come to realise that there are many myths perpetrated about football, clubs and players that go unchecked and affect are views about the beautiful game.

Consider this as an attempt to clear the cobwebs and make some sense out of the insanity that goes on behind the scenes.

Holier Than Thou

The biggest mistake you can make when observing those in the public eye is to believe that they are, by simple virtue of being popular, somehow whiter than white. Honesty, impartiality, credibility, fair play, all of these traits are assumed to be part of a person’s personality simply because they are presented in a favorable light in the media.

I understand that this is a generalisation. Our perceptions also depend on the context in which a person is presented – the same female can come off as motherly, an angel or an ‘easy lay’ depending on the context she is presented in.

When you take this to football, things get a bit more complicated. Extreme polarity of opinions is created by our own emotional attachment to particular teams, clubs and players. Being a Manchester United fan for life, I can never offer Thierry Henry anything more than grudging respect. Similarly, Rio Ferdinand, for all his faults, is a world-class defender and is better than John Terry.

In short, we allow some people too much leeway, and with others we are far too harsh. In reality, everyone is just the same – human, and prone to making mistakes.

Fair Play vs Winning

The advent of tell-all television coverage and incessant replays has highlighted the conflict in football between the need for fair play (imposed from society and rules of the game) and the need to win at any cost.

The media loves a scandal, and they play up every incident that goes ‘against’ the spirit of fair play. Right and wrong are caricatured as stereotypes and players are expected to conform to them.

In reality, football players are normal people like you and me with extraordinary talents. They have wierd personality quirks as well. Some like to drink, some take drugs, some have anger management issues, some are habitual cheaters, others are habitual whiners, and some are just plain stupid.

The media spotlight focuses only on their abilities and selectively on their personality, allowing us to fill in the gaps in that person’s picture in our mind using context clues and our own emotional reactions.

The reality of football is far different from the idealistic fantasies in our heads – people cheat, bend the rules, and learn that when the stakes are high, only winning counts. A good loser is still a loser.

There are no prizes for being a graceful loser, and even the dirtiest winners get the medals. In football, as in life, some people will cut corners.

It’s easy to ignore the cheating every day around us because it’s not happening right in front of us, but once you see it on TV it’s blown all out of proportion. People cheat, deal with it.

And when I say deal with it, I mean putting measures into place that prevent cheating from taking place.

Team Spirit

Are you still under the illusion that your favourite club has fantastic team spirit? That they’re all best mates in the dressing room? Managers and players regularly clash, players duke it out and a lot of nasty ribbing goes on behind those closed doors. It’s not war, but it’s not a rosy picture either.

Once again, you’ll be safe if you ground yourself in reality. Groups of people rarely have a perfect time together – usually there is disagreement, bickering and a lot of backbiting. In football you have a manager and support staff to offer input and control things, but even then things are not always what we hope them to be.

On the flip side, people make real friends in the business as well. Henry has grown up with a bunch of the French internationals and is very close to them (Pires, Vieira, Gallas), while the kids that won the Premiership are still pretty tight (Scholes, Giggs, Neville, Butt, Beckham).

Fan Support

Ferguson criticised United fans last week for not making enough noise on weekend games, but the problem is not just a lack of passionate support, it’s also the rise of fanatical, foul-mouthed, irrational and militant support.

ArseBlog posts this snippet from an email conversation with a person who was at the United v Arsenal game:

Yesterday I was sat (courtesy of a United contact with season tickets) at pitch level three rows from the front directly, on the edge of the 18-yard box where Jens kept the ball in the first half. The abuse the poor lad got throughout the game was horrible and sickening. I know we all take this piss, but it started at a level of ‘fucking cheating Nazi cunt’ and when he was recovering from the ball in the face they were accusing him of gassing Jews and shagging the corpses. Throw his water bottle into the crowd? He should have pissed on them. The intensity of the pure naked hate was frightening.

Need I say anything else?

Keano, in his interview with the Sunday Times said something about the atmosphere at the smaller clubs being fresher and less dirty – could the same thing apply to fans as well? If so, the price of success is a high one to pay.

Money vs Loyalty

Somehow players are expected to display inordinate amounts of loyalty to fans and clubs alike. If you look at the situation realistically, and map it to the real world (always a good indicator of finding out how irrational we are), here’s what fans are saying:

When you join an organisation, you should stick to them for the rest of your productive life – give the best years of your life to them, because you owe it to the organisation and to the customers.

I’m all for players showing loyalty. And to a certain extent loyalty is both practical and should be expected (such as not going behind your employer’s back to make a deal with a competitor).

But do you really expect a player from a small-time Belgian club to give up the chance of making it big at the club with the richest owner, regardless of how well anyone else was willing to pay him?

Money is a powerful negotiating tool everywhere, and for most football players (as with people), it’s not how much more they are earning than the rest of the society…

It’s how much they could be leaving on the table.

Forgive me for being so crass as to consider football as a product, but that’s what it becomes once money is involved. Professional sports are as much about business as selling marketing services or cereal is – and more importantly, the players are like employees in the real world. If they are being offered more money and the terms are right, there is little chance of you keeping them with you.

All these topics probably deserve an article each of their own – for now, this should be enough to keep you busy for the rest of the week 🙂

I also understand that some people will disagree with me. If you decide to do so, please deal with what I have said and don’t make up parallel / unrelated arguments or put words in my mouth. Thank you for your time.

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