The Last Word: Football gets the heroes it deserves
Michael Owen and Carlos Tevez highlight the contempt with which many treat the game
Sunday 19 August 2012
Michael Owen missed the start of another season yesterday. There will not be too many more for him, but when football is a job rather than a joy, the price has to be right, and the challenge has to be rationalised.
His logic in sifting through suitors with a lofty sense of detachment is bleak and, in an age of counterfeit commitment, his honesty invites accusations of cynicism and complacency. Envy at his wealth, and the ease of his lifestyle, results in vicious, utterly unwarranted abuse.
Owen refuses to propagate the myth that joining Stoke has some special resonance. Even the romantic notion of ending his career at Everton, his boyhood club, is a flimsy basis for negotiation. Yet viewed dispassionately, his determination to continue his career on his own terms is understandable.
Football has treated him as a commodity since childhood. When he listens to his inner voice it is not that of the über-professional, as comfortable in a Pinewood film studio as a Premier League dressingroom. It is of the athlete whose body began to betray him at 19. It is of the footballer whose first instinct is to ask: "What's in it for me?"
That doesn't make him a bad person. Owen is an intelligent, likeable individual. He's merely a product of his environment. Football has taught him to hold a little back, and to mistrust a stranger's motives. Like it or not, we have helped to create him, and those like him.
Instead of immersing himself in the rhythms and rituals of a new season Owen, a free agent, has time on his hands. He has used it to emerge as the most articulate spokesman for a game convulsed by the implications of contempt in the aftermath of the Olympics.
His response to unflattering comparisons has not been without contradictions. Owen admits he would not take his children to a football match, and is naïve to expect the privileges of normality when he lives in an abnormal world. He's worth £40 million, which tends to colour even the most inconsequential conversation.
Nothing will change because of a brief burst of navel-gazing. Players don't need to care; the debate about their conduct is the white noise of fame. The puerile tribalism of the modern fan is too deeply ingrained to be channelled positively.
To prove the point, a pair of Arsenal supporters burned a Robin van Persie shirt for the cameras. The Olympic long-jump champion Greg Rutherford, a Manchester United fan, was attacked by Twitter trolls for daring to express his excitement at the transfer.
Van Persie's financial opportunism emphasised the transitory nature of the football business. Owen went through the same rituals: the history lesson from Sir Alex Ferguson and the corporate branding. He would have understood the revealingly crass gesture which soured the Dutchman's arrival at Old Trafford.Anyone wishing to read about the new signing on United's official website could not do so without signing up to a marketing initiative disguised as a prize draw. Glazernomics dictated that fans were, once again, treated as database fodder. Unsurprisingly, that attitude of exploitation and entitlement finds an echo in the modern footballer.
The rot sets in long before they arrive for training in a Baby Bentley. A lower-league pro of my acquaintance had to be pulled off one such ingénu, who informed him he was out on loan on sufferance. The prospect, an England age-group player, was sent back to his Premier League club for his own safety.
Manchester City will stage an exercise in collective amnesia today when the defence of their title begins. Carlos Tevez might be a parody of a professional, who treated the club, and his team-mates, with contempt. But that was then, this is now. He is lean, fit, and firing. He will be hailed as a prodigal son.
Football gets the heroes it deserves.
Flying a flag for Games diversity
Bad news for football's apologists: Paralympians are even more engaging than Olympians. They demand to be treated on their merits as athletes, rather than on their assets as human beings.
That's understandable because of the nature of elite competition, but unrealistic because of the intensity of the emotions they arouse.
There's nothing patronising, or politically incorrect, about admitting to being moved by the Paralympian values: courage, determination, inspiration and equality.
The Paralympics have consistently challenged cultural convention. Seoul in 1988 changed the perception of disabled people in a society which treated them as second-class citizens.
The London Games, which begin in 10 days, will be another landmark event. Crowds will be unprecedented, and a new generation of role models will be established.
It won't be perfect, because Paralympic sport has its share of short cuts and scandals, but it will be special. It's about more than meeting medal targets and justifying the investment of public money. It's about celebrating the diversity of such athletes as the swimmer Ellie Simmonds, wheelchair racer Shelley Woods, horserider Lee Pearson, cyclist Jon Butterworth and Peter Norfolk, the "Quadfather" of wheelchair tennis.
They don't want your sympathy. They will reward your support.
According to Clarke Carlisle, the PFA chairman, a picture of a monkey was stuck to a black coach's locker at a Premier League club in pre-season training. The lack of official response suggests casual racism will continue to fester in football.
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