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The games people play

Phillip Knightley
Filed on March 25, 2007

FOOTBALL is a funny game. It is enormously popular all over the world but especially so in Britain. One sports journalists memorably wrote: “There are only three sports in Britain -- football, football and football.”

Hundreds of thousands of fans spend more money than they can afford to attend matches that are becoming increasingly expensive -- a ticket for an important match can cost 40 or 50 pounds.

As stadiums can hold up to 100,000 people it’s clear that football is big business. Players earn fortunes in transfer fees, wages, endorsements and sponsorship. They lead the lives of celebrities -- spoilt, pampered and always in the news. I am ambivalent about it all. I enjoy watching the game. I admire the skills of the best players. But the behaviour of some of them, and the behaviour of their fans often appalls me.

So it was with some interest, reading the football pages of British newspapers the other day, that I came across two stories, not quite juxtaposed, but close enough to make me believe that the sports editor had positioned them deliberately so as to make a point. The first concerned two British players, Lee Bowyer of Newcastle and Craig Bellamy of Liverpool. The sports reporter was imagining that these two were competing for football’s “Top Tosspot of the Year”. He recalled that Bowyer had been fined £4,500 for hurling chairs at two Asian workers in a McDonald’s restaurant, having said, “I don’t want to be served by no Paki.”

Then there was the fact that he had dumped his former girlfriend Emma Keeney after discovering she was half-Indian and feared that they might have a “brown baby”. The reporter concluded, “Despite his insistence that he is not a racist, we feel that he is a worth runner-up in the tosspot stakes.”

Then he turns to Craig Bellamy of Liverpool and examines his past form. There was a police caution for common assault and a £100,000 club fine after an incident involving a 20-year-old female student. There was a £750 court fine for drunken, abusive behaviour outside a Cardiff nightclub and another accusation (he was cleared) of assaulting two women outside another Cardiff nightclub. Last month he was fined £80,000 by his club for threatening to attack a team-mate with a golf club. The sports reporter writes, “For managing to spit in the eye of fortune when given another chance, for betraying the trust of those who invested so heavily and believed so fervently, and for unrelenting stupidity and nastiness, Craig Bellamy is football’s Top Tosspot of the Year.”

Not far away, in the same newspaper, The Guardian, another sports reporter wrote about Barcelona’s right back, Oleguer Presas. While other footballers arrive for training in BMWs, Mercedes, Ferraris, Porsches and the odd Hummer or two, Presas drives a van. He is an economics graduate who contributes to Spanish cultural and political journals with carefully elaborated articles. He is the author of a book “Cami d’Itaca” (The Road to Ithaca) which deals with everything from Spain’s Fascist years to the war on terror and even anorexia.

He links great football to politics and his club to the fight against the Fascist forces of the late General Franco. “When Barcelona wins the league, we become the army of joy, finally able to face up to Franco’s troops. We imagine ourselves halting that pack of tanks, responding to their bullets with song, laughing in the face of the Fascist ire.”

He is a philosopher out to make the world a better place. “Why did we go to war in Iraq?” he says. “Why didn’t the people do more when the polls showed that they were anti-war? That’s one of the great questions. But we live in a society where the appetite for news is voracious. There are stories that are hugely important but within a week they are forgotten. It’s clear that there are imperialistic, economic and strategic interests behind the war but the news moves on and everyone focuses on something else. We have to stop and reflect a bit on where we are going.” The contrast between the Spaniard and his two British counterparts could not be more stark. I have no idea why there should be such a difference. But what a pity more footballers, especially British ones, are not like Presas.

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