A week before the new football season begins, players have been given stark warnings to improve their behaviour or face the wrath of a sporting public hugely impressed by the dedication, dignity and sportsmanship of Olympic competitors. Some fear that football, bloated by its new £3bn TV rights deal, may face a backlash from cash-strapped fans disenchanted with spoilt and selfish behaviour by its superstars.
The England manager, Roy Hodgson, led calls for players yesterday to show more responsibility as the Football Association and the players' union demanded an end to the sort of abusive language highlighted by the court case involving John Terry and Anton Ferdinand.
With more heroics expected during the Paralympics, football faces a backlash that could have an effect where it hurts most – financially. Level of attendances at next weekend's opening Premier League and Football League matches will be monitored, as will interest from sponsors whose cash could be directed at other sports. Manchester United are running a radio campaign for unsold VIP packages at Old Trafford and the FA is requesting publicity to help to sell tickets for England's opening World Cup qualifying game against Ukraine next month.
Brian McDermott, manager of newly promoted Reading, said: "The Olympics have been a massive success. Football's taken second place and no one's been talking about the Premier League. But they will this week." The worry is what sort of discussion it will be, with media bound to home in on any behaviour contrasting with that widely seen over the past fortnight. Hodgson said: "It's been very refreshing to see talented people showing a good face to the nation and the world at large. I was pleased with the way the England players behaved during the Euros. Now the Olympics have really shown us the way to go, so there is now an extra burden of responsibility on our players to make sure they are good role models."
FA chairman David Bernstein wants an end to "serious personalised abuse" on the field. He said: "It is important players embrace what we have seen over the past two weeks and maintain it. After the incredible high performance and sporting spirit we have seen at the Olympic Games, players must recognise that with the privilege of playing comes the responsibility for managing themselves in a similar way."
Mr Bernstein was speaking after meeting Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, who called last month for referees to send players off for bad language even if it caused "mayhem" in the short term. Mr Carlisle said yesterday: "The general level of respect between athletes and opponents at the Olympics has been outstanding. As we approach the start of the new season, it does seem the right time to re-emphasise the importance of the way we conduct ourselves."
Everton's captain, Phil Neville, said yesterday that football should be asking what it could learn from the Games: "Behaviour must improve, and if the FA wants to crack down on bad behaviour they will hear no objection from me."