Sam Wallace: Huge salaries are justified by game's enormous income

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The Independent Online

There is no consolation if you are a newly-qualified teacher earning £19,161 a year (outside London) or a nurse getting by on £18,114. There can be little comfort to a key worker unable to afford a house in the south-east of England - let alone a mansion with a bath shaped like the European Cup. But however you feel about their salaries, don't hate professional footballers for the money they earn.

The average wage of a Premiership footballer is, The Independent reveals today, £676,000 and justifying the salaries of modern players can feel like a hopeless task, especially when the letters flood in from teachers, nurses and university lecturers who would struggle to afford the deposit on a Blackburn Rovers' striker's double garage, never mind the house he lives in. No-one would argue that footballers do a more important job, the difference is that they work in an industry that returns the profits to its workers like no other in history.

There are those who tell us that the old heart has gone from the working man's game, that the miners, steelworkers and shipbuilders who once played it have been replaced by a new breed who barely know how lucky they are. In the match I watched on Sunday the best player was Wayne Rooney, son of a dinner lady. His fellow 20-year-old millionaire was Cristiano Ronaldo who grew up in a one-storey house on a hillside in the Madeira Islands, a long way from the luxury hotels on the beach. I went there once to interview his father (who by then had moved to a better place) and was struck by the fact that the original family home was so small, the washing machine was on the roof.

The professional game in this country is still played by men whose lives, and the lives of their families, have been changed profoundly by their success in football. Unlike their predecessors they may never have been as far as the factory gates, or its modern day equivalent, but the shared experience of their parents and siblings will tell them all they need to know about the hardship of life at the bottom of the pay scale. £676,000 a year is their reward for accomplishment in a sport that will earn £1.024 billion over the course of its current three-year Sky television deal. Try convincing yourself that the executives of a privatised industry would suck less out of a business that yielded just as much.

There is also the longevity of a footballer's career. When he discussed Patrick Vieira's nine years at Arsenal last month, Arsène Wenger described his former captain's time at the club as "45 to 50 years of a normal life." According to the Wenger formula that means five years for every one of a footballer's existence, a working life of 50 years packed into a decade. Which puts the average annual salary of a Premiership footballer over his lifetime at £135,000 - still no consolation to the teachers and nurses but then little more than the Speaker of the House of Commons earns.

England will send a team to this World Cup finals of men who grew up in places like Barking, Chingford, Stepney, Bury, Huyton and one of the rougher parts of Islington. Forty years ago, in 1966, the nation had a team drawn from Barking, Plaistow, Ashington, Collyhurst, Ashton-under-Lyme and Farnworth. What has changed is not the kind of men who play football, but that football has become better at rewarding those who play it.

This weekend, the England World Cup winner Alan Ball talked about what he remembered of that fabled 1966 team - "We had," he said, "this wonderful feeling that we were still part of the people. Not any more."

Ball said of the new generation: "They've got security, they've got blacked-out windows, they hire clubs to go and have a night out." It was a powerful image of the fractured relationship between multi-millionaire players and ordinary fans.

Powerful until you read in the same article that goalkeeper Gordon Banks had refused to speak unless he was paid a fee. Let's hope that if the boys of 2006 go all the way in Germany they will have made enough in their careers to talk freely about their triumph for the rest of their lives. Fee or no fee.

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