Sport Soccer

Friday 19 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'The media have always treated footballers with contempt and a snobbish disdain'

‘As Raheem Sterling pointed out, stoking up hatred against players has consequences’ Photo: Action Images via Reuters
‘As Raheem Sterling pointed out, stoking up hatred against players has consequences’ Photo: Action Images via Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Raheem Sterling is right about the media being partly responsible for the racist abuse he received at Stamford Bridge. But he's only partly right. The English media behaves horribly towards almost all footballers, not just the black ones. Focusing solely on the racial aspects of this behaviour lets the perpetrators off the hook to a certain extent.

It's a bit like Mr Colin Wing Esq. of Beckenham, London complaining that he called Sterling a 'Manc c**t' rather than a 'black c**t,' during the Chelsea-Manchester City game. Our hero appears to think that this defence changes everything.

But even if we take a leap of faith and believe Mr Wing, the fact remains that he was still levelling abuse at Sterling in the most deranged and hateful manner. The behaviour remains unacceptable and he deserves the ban Chelsea have apparently imposed upon him. If he behaved like that towards someone in the street, he'd have been arrested.

The English media's attitude towards the case is a bit like Mr Wing's. Their hand-wringing over the racist slant to stories about Sterling shouldn't obscure the fact that this derives from a general attitude towards professional footballers which combines contempt, prurience and snobbish disdain.

Twenty years ago, David Beckham was sent off for a sneaky kick on Diego Simeone in a World Cup match. After England lost to Argentina in a penalty shoot-out, Beckham was the designated scapegoat for the defeat and derision rained down upon him. He was apparently the symbol of everything that was wrong with English society, a spoiled, superficial brat who'd let his country down. For a while after that the coverage of Beckham was one long sneer.

There's a long tradition of this. Remember Tony Adams appearing on the back of the Daily Mirror with donkey's ears superimposed on his photo and Graham Taylor being caricatured by The Sun as a turnip? Hilarious stuff if the people involved weren't actual human beings with feelings. In time, his critics forgave Beckham and went to the other extreme before the 2002 World Cup finals.

Sybil Fawlty once told Basil, "You never get it right do you? You're either crawling all over them, licking their boots or spitting poison at them like a Benzedrine adder." So it goes with the English media and footballers. And as Sterling pointed out, stoking up hatred against players has consequences.

Remember the ignoble tale of John Terry and Wayne Bridge and the woman they had in common? Running the story in the first place was gratuitously intrusive but the coverage didn't stop there. Most of the papers, and not just the usual tabloid suspects, decided to conduct a spurious analysis of it. Should this debar Terry from the England captaincy? Had JT broken some unwritten manly code? Would Wayne shake John's hand when they next played against each other?

There's no real justification for writing that kind of stuff, just as there was no need for the reams of nonsense written about the somewhat tangled family situation of Ryan Giggs later on. Yet Giggs, too, had to endure his private life being combed through in public by guys who seemed eager to remind everyone why Spitting Image once portrayed journalists as pigs.

The excellent novelist Sally Rooney made a good point in a recent interview when she noted that footballers "through no fault of their own have a sublime gift and there's nothing in their personality that would necessarily mean they enjoy fame. They don't choose to be celebrities in the way that actors do. They just have it heaped on them."

When a kid discovers to his delight that he is spectacularly talented at football, he will have little inkling that in the eyes of the media this means that his whole personal life, at an age when most of us make plenty of mistakes, is fair game. The house he buys, the car he drives, the girlfriend he meets, the tattoo which is inscribed upon him, are all there to be used as elements in a morality tale. He is condemned to life in 'The Valley of the Squinting Windows', becoming a kind of prisoner of his own talent.

Yet fame is very much incidental to the real business of football, which is helping a team to win matches. The venerable paparazzi excuse that the celebrity is 'asking for it' because they put themselves in the public eye doesn't really wash when it comes to footballers.

The justifications for the stories are often the most nauseating aspect of the whole package. The hounding of Terry was justified by the fact that some aftershave company had once given him a 'Dad of the Year' award.

When Sterling had a gun tattooed on his leg, we were told that this was an outrage because, y'know, gun crime, something or other, mumble, mumble . . .

The catch-all excuse for trawling into people's private lives is that footballers are 'Role Models' so that any offence they commit against the peculiar tight-arsed suburban moral code of the media must be revealed and condemned. Thus other miscreants admired by the youth of the nation will be warned to never waver from the path of righteousness. It's not even a very good excuse, is it?

In reality, papers hound footballers because the public likes gossip, preferably of the discreditable variety. I remember watching a documentary about the Rolling Stones where a member of the band's entourage marvelled at the behaviour of the young female fans who would invade the stage to get close to Mick Jagger. Once they got there, he remembered, they didn't really know what to do so often what they did was hit the singer. That weird mixture of worship and hatred is always there in the relationship between the public and its heroes.

Newspapers feed off this and add fuel to the flame. Nothing is too mean-spirited to be published. There's that old favourite where a player who had a bad season or performed poorly in some big game near the end of it is shown enjoying himself on holiday. Look at him, the club's fans are told, the £20m flop partying on a boat with his lovely girlfriend as if he hasn't a care in the world, oblivious to the pain his displays have caused to the ordinary decent supporter. He's rubbing your nose in it, mate.

Of course the photo is sometimes taken without the knowledge of the player. And even if the player posts it up himself on social media, he can surely be forgiven for allowing himself a smile on his holidays when all the sackcloth and ashes in the world won't change the result of games gone by. But this kind of stuff can enrage people who believe that buying a match ticket entitles them to insult and belittle another human.

There are clowns who say that this abuse is justified by the amount of money the players earn. But these two things are in no way connected. The player gets what he gets because that's the market value of his job. Personal abuse is not priced into it. Those who bring up the subject of players' wages do us the service of revealing the jealousy which motivates much of the moralising coverage and much of the personal abuse.

Let me tell you a story. Thirty years ago I landed in London and tried to scrape a living doing freelance journalism. It was tough going but I landed a gig with a news agency which provided stories for the tabloids. One night I was told to go to a street in Islington where I'd meet a photographer.

I arrived in the street, which was near the Angel tube station, and the photographer loomed up out of the darkness and told me we were there to await the return of a popular soap opera actor who lived in the house down there and was rumoured to be carrying on with one of his cast mates. After a short while the ludicrous nature of the assignment dawned upon me and I walked off, leaving a great career in the sleazeball business behind me.

What's stuck with me from that night is the level of hatred both the guy who despatched me and the photographer had for our target. The word 'barrow boy' was used more than once and aspersions were cast on both the man's talent and his intelligence. A surprising amount of personal animus had crept into the equation.

"I mean, who is he?" said one of the boys at one stage.

I think that question informs a lot of the coverage of footballers. Who are they, these uneducated working-class lads with their big money, their adoring public, their flash cars and big houses and model girlfriends? Who do they think they are?

The attacks on footballers are often rooted in not just jealousy, but in snobbery. Hence the frequent description of footballer's wages as 'obscene' by papers which seem intensely relaxed about the much greater money accruing to hedge fund managers, bankers, aristocrats, developers and other groups whose influence on society is much less benign than that of the average footballer.

In the end it boils down to class hatred. Sections of the English media dislike footballers of all creeds and colours for the same reason the Tory Party dislikes the Irish.

Footballers don't know their place either.

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