James Lawton: Did football's mercenaries learn
nothing from our Olympic heroes?

Di Canio appeared to be drawing a line between unprofessional behaviour and his own dwindling levels of toleration

Back in that other lifetime which featured prominently at the London Olympics, some of us wondered to what extent Premier League footballers would be inspired by what they were seeing.

Indeed, one of us was bold enough to put the question to a merry gentleman wearing a Chelsea scarf who happened to be queuing at Stratford’s bullet-train station after Britain had just won three gold medals in the Olympic Stadium. Less jovial now, his answer was not wholly encouraging. “Are you taking the p***, mate?” he demanded to know.

A seer of formidable proportions, no doubt. Perhaps he had a vision of Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley celebrating the end of the season – and his club’s escape from relegation – lying on his back on the floor of a Newcastle casino while decorated by £50 notes. Or his own Stamford Bridge hero David Luiz, while in the same prone position, chuckling at the artfulness of his contribution to the sending-off of his young compatriot Rafael da Silva at Old Trafford. Maybe he also saw arguably the most brilliant player in the entire league, Luis Suarez, chewing into the arm of Branislav Ivanovic.

No one, though, could surely have quite imagined that when it was all over Paolo Di Canio, who is, rightly or wrongly, widely regarded in polite political circles as football’s No 1 swivel-eyed loon, would put himself forward as the redeemer of the game’s professional culture at the end of a season which so frequently seemed to be hurtling hell-wards.

Now it may well be true some of Di Canio’s loyalties and attitudes and style of expression make easy sources of ridicule, but it is a lot harder to dispute the force of what he said after Sunderland’s somewhat fortuitous escape from the big drop. Remarkably, if not uniquely, Di Canio appeared to be drawing a line between what he considers unprofessional behaviour and his own dwindling levels of toleration.

The key quote was: “From now on I will be more strict because we have to improve our professionalism. In a week I have given seven players fines. It is not acceptable. I thought at Swindon in League Two arrogant, ignorant footballers did not know the score exactly because they had not so many chances at the top level. Will they play again for the club? No, not under me.”

Of course, it is as the Professional Footballers’ Association will tell us quickly enough. The sins of the few should not be visited on the many, though this does rather invite the question about what percentage of crass indiscipline is acceptable in an industry which offers such fabulous rewards and, axiomatically, is such a potent influence on so many young people.

Football has, of course, been askew on this issue for quite some time. When the Football Association appointed the ill-starred Paul Gascoigne as someone ideally equipped to give powerful lessons to tyro players, Peter Beardsley, the most admirable of professionals, wondered why it was that such a high-profile transgressor should be given such a role before thousands of much more dedicated footballers.

Di Canio’s candour at the weekend is certainly surprising when you set it against so much of the reaction of managers to the misdeeds of their players. Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez, who lived with impressively maintained dignity and a degree of success through the maelstrom of hostility provoked by his appointment, might have been expected to produce a more forthright response to the behaviour of Luiz at Old Trafford. Instead, he said that there was not much point in reacting because you had a match, a result, and whatever you said afterwards it didn’t change much, if anything.

When Suarez committed his biting atrocity – for a second time in his career – his manager Brendan Rodgers’ reaction was similar to his predecessor Kenny Dalglish’s when the player was found guilty of racism.

In all of this it should be remembered that some players plainly didn’t have to find their inspiration in the extraordinary achievements – and spirit – displayed by so many Olympians. Whatever you think of David Beckham’s celebrity status, there has rarely been a question about his understanding of what constitutes proper professional dedication. The same can be said of three other notable retirees, Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen.

In their different ways, all were superb representatives of the national game. All of them learnt their business with huge application and an awareness of both their professional responsibilities and understanding of their good fortune in doing something they loved for rewards they could not have dreamt of in other walks of life.

Before he was bedevilled by long-term injury, Owen was a thrilling vision of what a young footballer should be: intensely ambitious and also determined to behave properly on an off the field. At the European Championship of 2000, he declared: “I know how lucky I am to be in this position and I don’t want to waste it in any way. I want to be grow as a footballer – and also a human being.”

There were few more rousing statements of intent even at the great Olympics – and in the manner of their departures both Scholes and Carragher have declared their belief that if playing professionally at the highest level of football is a great privilege it is no deterrent to a well-balanced life and some secure principles.

These are players who in no small way have indeed brought some redemption to the image of a game so severely battered by the flawed behaviour by some of its most favoured sons.

You can take your choice on which of it was most wretched, and surely not the least of the candidates was the question posed by the Manchester City millionaire player between the defeats by Wigan Athletic and Norwich City. Was it time to pop the champagne at the dismissal of Roberto Mancini?

In a decent professional society, in which individual responsibility still has some place, there was of course never a time for that. It is, when you think about it, just another reason to applaud the stand of Paolo Di Canio.

Let’s hope cricket won’t take the Crowe road

In Sky’s now routinely excellent coverage of the first Test not the least riveting ingredient was a rerun of an interview with Martin Crowe, the fine New Zealand batsman who earlier this year stood down from the MCC’s World Committee in order to fight cancer.

He was asked how he saw the future of cricket and his answer was both unequivocal and unwelcome.

He said the future was Twenty20. This was not because of any fault line in Test cricket – as we saw at Lord’s, it is still a wonder of intrigue and suddenly erupting brilliance – but because it simply takes too long.

In modern life, Crowe was saying, there simply isn’t time to get absorbed in five days of fluctuating competition, or – in the case of the first Test –four of them, crowned by the superb performances of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad.

We can only pray nearly as hard that Crowe is mistaken as we hope that he wins his battle.

Ice-cool Jonny is the man to make Lions roar

With due respect to the firm of Anderson and Broad, and the latest rocket from the boot of Gareth Bale, there was no doubt about the weekend’s most compelling entertainment. It came from the assorted mercenaries of Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. Rugby union will never have a better advert in its furies and commitment.

Jonny Wilkinson was, naturally, in the thick of it and if his overall game wasn’t quite as overwhelming as it had been in some recent huge battles, it was still a model of fierce commitment and, when it mattered, icy nerve. The Lions, more than ever, would be mad to ignore his match-closing services in Australia.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?