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Streets Of London: Football’s Coming Home To Roost

From The Streets Of London with William Moloney

Football’s Coming Home To Roost

This has been the longest couple of weeks for football. A couple of weeks where the game has torn the carefully prepared PR packaging aside and given the public a glimpse at the real game.

It started last Monday when The Sun broke the story that a 17-year-old sixth former had been gang raped by 7 men in a London luxury hotel. Of these 7 men it was reported that some, if not all, were professional footballers. This story ran first on the news casts for the week, as the public and the media danced around the liable laws by using internet forums and broad brushed hints at the players identity.

The story took off again when in one of the Sunday papers; a professional celebrity party organiser came forward and said that he was involved. He came forward as he concerned, he did not know what the all the fuss was about, as there were only four men, it was consensual and it happened all the time. It, apparently, is called “roasting”. This sharing of the women is a very standard practise amongst the football elite, this party organiser told us; he could not even remember how many roasting’s he had been involved in this year.

So after all this sex, comes the drugs. On Monday, came the news that England’s most expensive player, Rio Ferdinand, had “forgotten” to take a drugs test in preparation for the England game against Turkey this weekend. He had driven off after training as the testers waited for him at his club. He apparently remembered 5 hours later and came back but the testers had gone. The test was organised by The FA and the England team who had wanted to test the entire England team before Saturday’s qualifier against Turkey. This was because two players will be randomly tested after the Turkey game. And if any player is found to be positive, the team will be banned from Euro 2004.

On Tuesday, reports started to emerge that one, possibly two, Leeds United players had been questioned and held over an alleged Rape that occurred on Monday night. It was one player and he was held for 24 hours and questioned. He was charged and released on bail.

Also on Tuesday Craig Bellamy, a Newcastle United and Welsh star, was convicted and fined for a drunken incident in Cardiff following an international match. The more serious charges involving racial slurs was dropped. It was also announced that Rio Fernand had been dropped for the match for Saturday.

After the sex and the drugs comes the hangover. On Wednesday, we woke here in London to hear that the entire England team, lead by the senior players like David Beckham, had gone on strike over the dropping of Rio Fernand and were refusing to play on Saturday against Turkey. The public reaction was utter shock. Their hero’s, richly rewarded, where refusing to play for England, what should be their greatest honour.

Thursday morning, we find that the England Team are now not on strike. Their well tuned nose for PR and public opinion having changed their mind. But not apparently, having had a change of heart.

But, this morning footballs old demons have risen to the surface, the football hooligans. At airports all across the country police forces are standing at departure gates trying to “pull” the hooligans before they board their flights to Turkey. If there are issues at the game in Istanbul, there is a chance that the England team will be banned from Euro 2004.

So, Rio is dropped. His friends are playing. The issue of why he “forgot” the test remains. But we are still left with three players involved in two separate rape cases and a good chance that English Football violence will again be in the spotlight.

All week the media had been filled with the stories of football players and their lives. Of the sex, the groupies, the money, the nightlife and occasionally their play. The sports pages have been filled with the damage done to the game. The older writers harking back to a simpler age, when players played for the love of the game. The front pages focussed on the sex and the women.

Much has been made in the media of the age of the players, the obscene nature of their wages (£100,000 per week) and their immaturity. Underpinning this discussion has been the occasionally mentioned backgrounds of these players: under-educated, single mothers, and council estates etc. The usual totems for societies break down.

The over educated media, from their privileged background and comfortable middle class homes see this as the problem. That giving all this money, all this adulation, to these types of men, is the problem. That they are incapable of dealing with it.

This smack's a little of racism to me. Or at least a class reaction. The middle class offended by these uppity, rich, famous footballers. The middle class has always been suspicious of anyone that earns a living through their physicality. And these footballers, all professional sportsmen, are the kings of the working class.

The media reaction is an interesting issue. A footballers talent makes him professional but the media makes them celebrities, makes them footballing gods. And now they are tearing them down.

Rio Ferdanand was once a poster boy for football; he had escaped life with a single mother on a Sink Estate through football. Now, he is a drug cheat, a monster. He is seen now to have been incapable of escaping this background.

It is not solely a story about the duplicity of the media. This is not just a story of football. These incidents are happening whereever professional sports are played. Kobe Bryant, the LA Lakes Superstar sits and waits for his rape case in California. Mike Tyson has been to jail for Rape. Norm Hewitt apologized to the nation after a drunken incident in Queenstown.

It is really a story about young men and how they adjust to the power and the adulation heaped on them by the marketing machines that surround sport. I am not old enough to hark back to the golden days but we live now in an age of hyper-professionalism. Where the professional sportsmen are role models and sales dummies, where hundreds of millions of pounds of commercial interests rests on them. To sell enough shirts, to sell enough tickets, the marketers have had to blow these men out of all human proportions. And elevating them to this god like state means that the fall to earth is that much further.

For we want them to be role models. In some cases, we need them to be role models. And they are simply not. They are over paid, over sexed, 20-year men. 20 year old men that have never been taught how to deal with the fame and the wealth, only that they should seek it. The clubs and the associations, the NZRFU if we want to bring it home, do not give these kids life skills, they give them media training. Media training is more about protecting a sales tool, than it is about preparation for life. How would any of us adjust at 20, with this wealth, power and adulation?

I do not want to appear like I feel sorry for these kids. I do not. I feel sorry for those women who chase after the image of these kids. They see them every day, in every branch of the media. Attracted to the wealth and the perfect physical specimens, their media images sanitised though careful PR. When alone with them the women find the truth behind the perfect marketing a little uglier.

So we sit and wait for the two rape cases to come to court. We sit and wait to see what will become of Rio Ferdinand. We sit and wait if all will be forgiven if England wins against Turkey and qualify for Euro 2004. We sit and wait to see whether drunken idiots will start a riot in Istanbul. But the one change needed is the one not worth waiting for. There is too much invested in sport, to many commercial concerns, to many contracts, to many televised games, shirts and products to sell to change the nature of the game now.

******* ENDS ********

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