Olympic heroes raise role model questions in football

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In the euphoric aftermath of the Olympic Games, we are left looking for a fix. Where are we going to get that high? What is on the next page of the sporting diary? Ah yes, an England football international. England versus Italy. The heart sinks, doesn’t it?

Well, it does for many. I cannot recall how many times in the last few days I have been asked the question: Why can’t our footballers be like that? Why can’t they be like our Olympic heroes? Why can’t they display the kind of humility and sportsmanship that we have all so enjoyed witnessing in the Games over the last heady fortnight?

Indeed, the success of the Olympics has been distilled by many into a failure for football. It has allowed a voice for many who did not know where to find it to ask openly: How come our footballers are such a bunch of tossers?

I will try to answer that here, but first I must point out the obvious. They are not ALL a bunch of tossers. Of course they are not. That is just a lazy generalisation.

Secondly, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Outside of the Fulham Road in London, one of the least liked players over the last decade has been Didier Drogba. Yet you do not have to penetrate far beyond the gamesmanship and the time wasting on the pitch to locate an admirable figure off it.

The amount of personal wealth Drogba has pumped into medical facilities in his native Ivory Coast stretches into numbers of million. His current ambition is to fund the construction of six new clinics across the country. You can only admire that.

However, that gets us away from the point. I am convinced that Premier League football is simply the most clear-cut example of a sociological equation that goes like this: fame and adulation + money + at a very young age = a young person with a distorted self-opinion and a strong potential to behave like an idiot.

The youth bit is the problem. If you are a young superstar footballer, you will have had coaches and sycophants (often they are the same person) whispering in your ear how good you are pretty much from the age of nine or 10. Then you start earning well when you are 18. And then you see how the players around you behave and you copy them.

All society works like that, without even intending to do so, we are conditioned by our environment. If your peers drive Ferraris and shout at referees, then you inevitably end up doing the same.

So this is not just a football problem. Again, it is just that football is the most high profile version of it. Over the last 15 years, ever since rugby union went professional, I have had a close-up view of the game and have watched as it gradually changed, as young rugby players found themselves rich and famous.

The sociological equation works for them too. Rugby players can behave like tossers, you know; the England rugby team who went to the World Cup in New Zealand a year ago could not have done more to emphasise that.

Yet there is a world of difference between (most) Olympians and athletes in the traditionally big sports like football and rugby. Footballers play at least once a week, every week they have fans baying their love for them. Olympians (generally) are expected to deliver one performance peak a year and are not exposed to such adulation.

And (almost all) Olympians struggle to get by. Being a professional athlete in an Olympic sport is not a lucrative business.

Indeed, the sociological equation simply does not fit. Olympians are having their moment in the sun now. But generally they have neither wealth nor celebrity. Their equation reads more like: eternal striving + making ends meet + anonymity = humility.

However, an explanation is not a justification. Great Britain’s Olympians have been wonderful athletes, admirable people, unbeatable role models. If football could tap into that, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, it would need a change in society and culture and it seems inconceivable that that would ever happen.

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