The Villa defender’s posting of a photograph of his flash motor on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of their 0-6 home humiliation by Liverpool on Sunday has given the armchair flagellators another large stick to beat today’s footballers with.
The mantra that today’s players are uncaring and fixated on money rather than the pursuit of excellence is repeated so often that it has become national groupthink that is seldom questioned. Our tendency to see the problems associated with modern football as specific to our era is misguided, says Tom Simmonds.
The numbers involved have been hyper-inflated, but the essential nature of the debate has not changed. Those outside of the inner sanctums of players have always viewed their status wealth with suspicion.
Arthur Hopcraft wrote of George Best in the late 1960s: “(He) is not fundamentally ostentatious; he is merely young, popular and rich by lower-middle class standards.”
Hopcraft goes on to say that resentment of the top players of Best’s era sprouted from the fact that it wasn’t so long ago that those on the terraces enjoyed parity of earnings with the players. While it would be wrong to say that his observation about a player’s wealth relative to those who pay to watch him still holds true, the way in which society has evolved since the Northern Irishman’s playing days means his point is still highly relevant.
While the average fan can’t go and buy a Maserati alongside a £10 loaf of artisan sourdough bread, the deliberate ploy by governments in the last 30 years to view their citizens as consumers (a strategy which football clubs have aped to the letter) has made the average person think that lavish lifestyles, which footballers are held up as exponents of, are within reach even if you aren’t earning megabucks.
Fast forward to approaching a half century on from Hopcraft’s words on Best and everywhere you look, scaled-down versions of opulence are offered to anybody with access to either a reasonable salary, easy credit or both. Since November 1994, when the National Lottery was first launched, it has been sold to the nation as an opportunity for ordinary members of the public to buy their way up the social strata.
And here is the rub. Hopcraft said 50 years ago that Best, even in his newly-minted phase, was not so distant from “moderately skilled factory helots” in terms of his position in society because, no matter how rich somebody gets off football, it is unlikely that those occupying society’s higher echelons will accept them as equals. Sol Campbell’s awkward, Bryan Ferry-esque attempts to fit in with the aristocracy after his playing career is a contemporary example of this.
Similarly, the portrayal of footballers in the media today still largely takes the tone that most of them are winners of a biological lottery who have little right to the riches that their talent has helped them to accrue. Even those who are successful and aren’t part of a side passively accepting a 0-6 home defeat. Following this line of thinking, it is not hard to see how those who aren’t involved on the playing side could resent a footballer’s position, regardless of that footballer’s competence.
In light of this, an action like Lescott’s (which he says was not deliberate … if so, it was unfortunate in the extreme) will always play out badly, as he was a participant in a capitulation that every Villa fan would have deemed unworthy of their office. The press were criticising England players for being cosseted and indifferent in reaction to poor results as long ago as the early 1950s. There has never been any popular challenge to this argument since it emerged, and the numbers now involved in a footballer’s pay packet means there is unlikely to be in future due to society’s continued scepticism regarding footballers and their motives.
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