To many people the sight of a group of leading footballers entering a swanky London hotel spells trouble. Incidents like the alleged "roasting'' of a girl at the Grosvenor Hotel last season symbolised the mixture of sexual excess, financial extravagance and general lawlessness which has tarnished the game.
The eight Premiership players entering the Landmark Hotel yesterday were, however, engaged on a goodwill mission. They were promoting the English launch of Diambars, a charity which is developing a football school in Senegal.
It was an A-list cast: Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Claude Makelele, Kolo Touré, William Gallas, Geremi, Luis Boa Morte and Moritz Volz. Their presence was indicative of the respect Vieira commands, for he is one of the four founders of Diambars. The others are also footballers. Bernard Lama, the French goalkeeper who had a brief spell with West Ham and shared the original inspiration with the former Hibernian player Jimmy Adjovi-Boco, who played with Lama at Lens and Lille, and Saer Seck, a noted Senegalese footballer.
Football may be mired in bad publicity but the game has been associated with charitable causes for many years from the Charity (now Community) Shield to the annual Christmas hospital visits. What is new is a degree to which players are now acting on their own initiative rather than at the behest of clubs and organisations.
It says much about the modern players' level of wealth, but also about their celebrity status. Men like Vieira open doors around the world. He is arguably the most famous person of Senegalese extraction. This combination of economic power and cultural prestige has an enabled Diambars to attract blue chip sponsors and the support of Unesco together with government agencies in France and Senegal. It is the reason Vieira expects that two of the 1,000 signed commemorative shirts put on sale yesterday via the website (www.diambars.com) yesterday will be bought by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac.
The aim of Diambars (which means "warrior-like'' in Wolof, the language of Senegal) is both to develop good footballers and to educate them in an impressively well thought out campus. It is an attempt to avoid the current situation in which promising Africans are taken to Europe at an early age by agents but often deserted there having been injured or failed to make the grade.
"I am in a very privileged position and if I use it the right way I can help inspire kids to write their own path in life,'' Vieira said yesterday. "I have known Jimmy, Bernard and Saer for a long time and we have spoken about our dream for many years so it is amazing to see it come to fruition.''
The quartet are not alone. Cafu, Juan Sebastian Veron and Pavel Nedved are among those engaged in similar initiatives (see table). Most of them originate from outside wealthy western Europe.
"Maybe the reason South American and African players want to put so much back is that in their homeland they were brought up with the gulf between rich and poor, and the realities of life and death," Vieira said. "Perhaps we have different family values because of the poverty we faced or lack of infrastructure in our country. We never forget our roots.''
English players' charitable involvement tends to be through established organisations. Niall Quinn donated the £1m from his testimonial, primarily to children's hospitals. Gary Kelly donated the profits from his testimonial to cancer charities. The exception is the Andy Cole Children's Foundation, an organisation founded and developed by the Fulham striker to help children round the world.
All these initiatives are admirable but one footballer has gone beyond them all. Damiano Tommassi, Roma's Italian international, gave 30 per cent of his salary to charity for several seasons and spent an off-season on a construction site building low-cost housing for immigrants.
Footballers, eh? Only interested in themselves. Try telling that to Vieira and Tommassi, or the people they help.Reuse content