Tuesday 21 January 2020

Football in no need of sermon from Olympics

Fireworks explode above the Maracana Stadium at the end of the closing ceremony for the Rio Olympic Games. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Fireworks explode above the Maracana Stadium at the end of the closing ceremony for the Rio Olympic Games. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

That whoosh of expensive engines you can hear is football retreating to its gated community to ride out the storm of people saying that the beautiful game should learn from the Olympics. It will be over soon, and both sides can return to what they do best.

Football is in no need of sermons from Olympic sport about how to behave, though it could sometimes do with toning down its megalomania.

Brazil's Neymar bites his medal. Photo: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
Brazil's Neymar bites his medal. Photo: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

An area where football loses to the Olympics is the sense that today's elite players exist in a corporate compound, remote from their audience.

Another has more to do with the fans than the performers: the insult culture that is football's Esperanto, and was blissfully absent in Rio.

There is, however, an unconvincing theory going around that Olympic sport sets a behavioural standard that wipes football's nose in the dirt.

First, a distinction needs to be made between the international and club games.

At Euro 2016, we praised the openness and humility of Chris Coleman's Wales, who said again and again how happy they were just to be in France, as friends, while their children wooed the crowds with post-match kickabouts?

Or take France, whose players spoke so convincingly about wanting to lift their country's spirits after the recent terrorist attacks: none more than Antoine Griezmann, whose sister Maud survived the Bataclan theatre attack.

Even here in Rio, one of the most inspiring snapshots was Neymar's cathartic winning penalty in the gold medal shoot-out against Germany, two years after he missed Brazil's 7-1 defeat in a World Cup semi-final.

Neymar, who spoke up for his country's dispossessed during that World Cup, lifted the curse of that terrible day in Belo Horizonte. He had dedicated himself to Brazil's Olympic mission, choosing it ahead of the Copa America, and sent Rio into ferment.

There are three examples there of international football serving a purpose beyond slicing up the vast cake of television money.

To overlook the human factor in football is a dubious starting point.

Neymar's near-hysterical reaction to Brazil's win reaffirmed that footballers have allegiances to things beyond themselves. They were formed as people long before they joined Barcelona or Manchester United.

Club football demands a different kind of analysis. Alienation among supporters is hard to deny.

Many Premier League fans feel they have been reinvented as consumers in a market-fixated business that exists to shift wealth to players and go-betweens.

The only place they can commune with their heroes is through social media - another commercialised platform - via accounts mostly written by gofers.

Football knows it is testing the loyalty of its followers. Jose Mourinho, in reflective sabbatical mode, said before taking the Manchester United job: "Agents don't want stability - stability doesn't make money. What makes money is instability. Players, they don't want stability. Players want to be in the market."

Against that backdrop of diluted allegiance, many supporters feel everything has become a commodity, everything a transaction.

But the scorn heaped on football after London 2012 and again this week ignores the reality that footballers are far more intensely scrutinised, twice a week, for 10 months each season - not once every four years. Many are committed to charitable work and appreciate their good fortune.

Undeniably, most Olympians are a pleasure to be around, unlike some Premier League footballers, who are hostile and aloof.

Olympians pick each other off the floor and applaud each other's efforts. Britain's are a united and inspiring bunch. Yet Olympians also trip each other up in races, take drugs to win and invent stories about armed robberies.

Any field of human endeavour where the institutionalised fraud of doping is so widespread is in no position to be selling itself as purely Corinthian.

At governing body level in Rio, we saw a state doping programme (Russia) effectively given a free pass by the Kremlin-whipped International Olympic Committee, and an Irish IOC executive member locked up amid allegations of a ticket fraud.


The Olympic ace is that the crooks can never kill the spirit of the Games, which is preserved by non-cheating athletes and by the audience, who support their own team without hating everyone else's (unlike in football, where tribal spite and trolling are considered art forms).

Granted, the Olympic velodrome or rowing lake is a far more pleasant place to be than a Manchester United-Liverpool game. But is the juxtaposition valid?

The uplifting harmony of Olympics and the dark, wintry pleasures of football, with its factory of 'controversies' and personality fixations, each have a place in the appetite.

There will be times, as some daft hoo-ha engulfs football, when we yearn to see the likes of the O'Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphy on the water again.

If football were more honest about its ugly, arrogant side, and tried harder to correct it, we might kick it less.

But just as we celebrate the country's Olympic feats, so football also shows us who we are, good and bad, and keeps the escapist drama coming for 10 months of our year.

They both count as blessings.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)


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