No flowers, please, for a game that lost its soul

Drink, drugs, violence, cheating, orgies, obsessive gambling, alleged gang rape... Is there no end to the stories that shame football? James Lawton, a lifelong fan, considers a disastrous loss of innocence
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The Independent Football

It is time, said the football writer, for the players to take the flowers out of their hair and get down to the serious business of playing the national game with proper respect for their employers and the public. Flowers from their hair?

You may have guessed that this is not a contemporary rant against the decadence of football culture. It was aired in the days of Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. The victims of the attack - likely lads Bobby Moore and Terry Venables - thought it rather over the top. They had merely come back to their team hotels late after drinks in a Blackpool nightclub with their West Ham United and Chelsea team-mates. Talk about days of innocence; of slightly blemished young knights driving Morris Minors and VW Beetles (if they were lucky).

But, really, what has changed? It is all a matter of degree. Of money and vast celebrity, and the sense that to play football in today's Premiership is to hold a lottery jackpot ticket. Of course it isn't, or shouldn't be, and today when we look with dismay at the latest examples of disciplinary breakdown and excessive behaviour, we are driven to one of two conclusions. It is either that the gods of football are in the process of destroying their creation by a combination of making the footballers mad and withdrawing all significant control of their increasingly excessive behaviour. Or that football, a bit like the Roman Empire, has simply waxed too fat and self-indulgent.

How else can we interpret the latest rash of ignominy? On Monday came news that the selection of England's team for the vital European Championship qualifier against Turkey in Istanbul this Saturday had been delayed 48 hours because of the Football Association's failure to react swiftly and coherently after Manchester United's England star Rio Ferdinand had "forgotten" to attend a routine drugs test. Ferdinand will now not play. It seemed to some perfectly to reflect the state of the game.

This comes, of course, in the wake of such gut-wrenching incidents as the mewling, puking gang-up by Arsenal players on Ruud van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford 10 days ago, an incident that provoked their much-respected manager Arsène Wenger to react only with the charge that the victim was a "cheat." So that was all right. And, then, dominating everything were the chilling claims (and so far they are no more than claims) that a gang of unnamed Premiership stars had been accused of the gang-rape of a 17-year-old ex-convent girl; an accusation that was taken seriously enough by Scotland Yard for the police to pursue DNA evidence.

Where will it all end? Possibly, some would say, in a certain loss of perspective. Are young and mostly poorly-educated footballers really any worse than fast-lane lawyers and stockbrokers who snort coke and chase around in Ferraris? Is the real difference the degree of scrutiny that is applied? If a lawyer, even a judge, is exposed as a philandering, drug-using mountebank, does anyone really care? And if they do, does it mean that the entire legal profession is rotten? Perhaps not; and yesterday one old and famous pro footballer was making the case that because Rio Ferdinand forgot something as basic as taking a drug test - because he was moving house - and because a bunch of footballers may have been involved in a squalid affair in a five-star hotel, it doesn't mean that the entire game should be assigned to some great rubbish bin.

He said: "There have always been some bad lads in the game, and there always will be. But what we have to ask ourselves is; how many young kids who have grown up in a poor background, who have had very little proper education, would not have certain problems if they had £30,000 or £40,000 a week plonked in their hands and given loads of free time?

"What the situation demands is much closer control by the clubs and the authorities - and much more discipline. You cannot dole out money to the extent that is happening now and expect youngsters to keep a proper perspective on their lives just out of good sense and natural intelligence. In life, this just doesn't happen too often. Of course, the things that have been happening recently are shocking, but before society hammers down too hard on football, perhaps it should take a little look around and see what's happening elsewhere."

Discipline in football is a dazzling ambition, and no doubt it would bring some instant results. Had it been applied more consistently by the Arsenal manager his team wouldn't have a shocking, and self-destructive, record of 52 red cards, and wouldn't have taken several days to realise that their behaviour at Old Trafford was a shocking affront to the best values of the watching nation. If a little of it had been applied to himself by Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, he might not have uttered a stream of obscenities in full view of the same nation when a decision went against his team in a Premiership game.

But then, the past few weeks' headlines didn't just erupt out of nowhere. Where did today's image of football come from? It is almost a case of taking your choice. Perhaps Eric Cantona, the lionised former hero of Old Trafford, made his contribution when, in a fit of pique, he leapt on to the terracing of Selhurst Park and attacked a fan, albeit a loud-mouthed ignoramus. Eventually, the FA imposed a six-month ban and a moderate fine. In America, where the sensitivities of the spectator, however crass, are considered to be of great importance, he would doubtless have been drummed out of his club - and the league. But in the Premiership, Cantona was for many an object of admiration. When he later attacked a TV newsman, Ferguson said the journalist was lucky to get away so lightly.

Glenn Hoddle, the former England manager notorious for his eccentric views on reincarnation, was allowed to write a kick-and-tell memoir of the 1998 World Cup for vast profit, without censure by his employer, the Football Association. He complained that the serialising newspaper, The Sun, which he had banned his players from reading, distorted his words. He was eventually fired for repeating his outlandish views on how the sins of one life were transmitted to another - but only after the Prime Minister had weighed in with his disapproval.

The fact is that, for some time, football in this country has exposed itself to the charge that it is essentially without a soul. When the Premiership re-negotiated its vast, lifestyle-sustaining contracts with television, it sought to reduce sharply its contribution to the Professional Footballers' Association (the players' union), and only strike threats by the body that is solely responsible for the welfare of the old pros who built the game towards its popularity - and the kids who sacrifice their education for a dream that fades while they are still so young - forced a decent compromise.

Yesterday, obscured by the news of Ferdinand, was the extraordinary charge by the Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, that the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, had advised the Russian billionaire owner of Chelsea, Roman Abramovich, to make a move for the Merseyside club's prized player, Steven Gerrard. Will the FA investigate this seriously? Or will it be pushed aside, along with all the other charges and countercharges about the way the game is run?

Here is another example of a game inadequately administered. More than a year after it was revealed that half a dozen leading Premiership managers had invested in the company of a leading agent, there is still no football legislation aimed at a quite stunning potential for conflicts of interest. When a BBC news reporter sought to question Sir Bobby Robson about his holdings, he was thrown out of a press conference at Newcastle United. This is the national game as it works - or doesn't. This is the game the public are expected to underwrite - and celebrate.

The Ferdinand case is surely a test for the Football Association's new chief executive, Mark Palios, who came into his office this year declaring the need for new and tougher levels of discipline. Some would say that the case is an opportunity to show precisely that, and certainly Palios acted forcefully yesterday when he banned Ferdinand from the game in Istanbul.

The player's defence that he forgot to take the drug test seems to go to the heart of the sense that the overwhelming problem for football is a failure of individual responsibility. You can find it almost everywhere - even in the godlike and in many ways exemplary form of the England captain and super-celebrity David Beckham. The Real Madrid star, whose third autobiography was recently given a print run of a million copies, is rightly praised for his personal and family values. But it is also true that in the first European Championship qualifier against Turkey (the second on Saturday goes on under the threat of England's banishment from the tournament in the event of any crowd trouble), it was the captain who contributed significantly to a pitch invasion. He ran into the acclaim of fans who had already caused trouble. And a few weeks ago in Macedonia he led team applause directed at fans who had travelled to the match in spite of repeated requests by the FA for them to stay at home.

The FA's reaction to Beckham's first transgression? They had him broadcast an appeal to the fans for good behaviour. It was shown on the big screen at the next game against Slovakia. Beckham didn't play in that match. He was banned for misconduct in the Turkey game. He was away on a worldwide celebrity tour boosting the sale of football shirts.

Nothing here, perhaps, to rank alongside more recent assaults on the public's idea of football and those who play it as something to be relished and admired, not just for the beauty of the game, which has conquered the world, but for the character of those who are involved. But perhaps this is a small indicator as to why things appear to be going so wrong. In other sports, Rio Ferdinand would now be dealt with as a drug-taker rather than the victim of a bout of forgetfulness. His automatic punishment would be a two-year ban.

An extreme course? It depends a little on how much you value something that not so long ago was a beloved and integral part of national life. Certainly, it seems that the point has long been passed where taking away a few flowers will do.

Footballers' lives (in their own words)

"I would never demean women by saying how many I'd been with. I've heard guys say 500 or 1,000, but I would never say anything like that. I've never counted them and I probably couldn't remember anyway."

FRANK McAVENNIE

"Normally I'm so shy I wouldn't chat to girls. But I was so high on cocaine I got chatting to this bird. I must have looked a right state, but I don't think it bothered her. Later, I went back to her house. I can't even remember where we made love. I was completely out of my head."

PAUL MERSON

"I'd waited long enough. I f***ing hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that, you c***. And don't ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries."

ROY KEANE, in his autobiography, on retaliating one year on from a vicious tackle by Alf Inge Haaland.

"Do you know how much I earn? I earn more in a day than you earn in a week. Do you know who we are? We could get you sacked."

JODY MORRIS, out with fellow Premiership players, to bouncer Trevor Thirlwall at the Wellington club, London.

"People were always saying to me I was going out too much. I'd just ignore them."

RIO FERDINAND

"F*** that."

VINNIE JONES, on being told he had to share a coach with players from a rival team while on a foreign tour. He hired a limousine instead.

"Zoom in on this!"

DON HUTCHINSON, who, on spotting female students videoing their graduation celebrations in a wine bar, unzipped his flies.

"Do you like black men? Do you fancy a threesome?"

DWIGHT YORKE, mistaking a Daily Mirror journalist for a groupie in Monte Carlo.

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