Our role models are now a byword for greed

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The Independent Online

Forty years ago I was put in detention for curling a ball round the goalkeeper. "That's not how we play the game, Jacobson," the headmaster told me when he found out about it. "We don't bend balls in this school."

Bad sportsmanship. When it came to taking free kicks or penalties in those days we alerted the goalkeeper to where we were going to kick the ball, and kicked it there.

The same with seeing a goalkeeper off his line and floating one over his head. Not done. "Hey, goalie - you're off your line," we were meant to shout, giving him time to pedal back before we shot, with no bend or deviance on the ball.

I had to write a letter of apology to Manchester Grammar after I floated one over their goalie's head. And I had to say sorry at assembly in my own school for bringing not just the game but the school itself into disrepute. I took this very hard. It's not nice being accused of deviance when you're 15. "Deviance" - don't you think I was right to hear a touch of anti-Semitism in that as well? Don't you agree that what I was really being charged with was playing football Jewishly? The headmaster didn't say as much, of course - they never do - but in my heart I believed I stood accused of Hebraic chicanery, of bringing some Kabbalic super-subtlety to the way I kicked a ball.

In the end a rabbi had to sort it out. "Once upon a time in a village outside Cracow," he told me, "a certain wise and holy man..."

"Cut the crap," I said. "It's help I need, not a fairy story for moral simpletons."

"In that case, boychick," he said, "just listen to me. I know what you can do with a football, you know what you can do a football, and the Almighty, blessed be His name, knows what you can do with a football. So what does it matter in the scheme of things if they don't know what you can do with a football? Take my advice, play something else. Do as your ancestors have been doing for the past 5,000 years and don't mix in. Play something less conspicuous. Play table tennis."

The rest is history. A couple of generations later a young man with fair hair, a dumb grin and uncomplicated lineage floats a ball over a goalkeeper's head from 50 yards. Within months he is bending every ball that lands at his feet. David Beckham - you'll have heard of him. Bitter? Yes, of course I'm bitter. How can I not begrudge him the fortune that could just as easily have been mine. But I am more bitter still for English football, which languished in plain passing and prosaic set-piece play for all those years after I curled that beauty past Mick Ormerod's outstretched hand.

What's more I'd have been a better example to the young.

No former Spice Girl on my arm, I can promise you that. We didn't go for elfin vacuity in my day. Marghanita Laski - that was our ideal of womanhood. Intelligence in the eyes, the mind palpable on the lips, words queuing in the throat. And for music Maria Callas, or at a pinch Renata Tebaldi. Fleshy women with thrilling voices, not dormice. And as a Leavisite I didn't approve of advertising. So gone the shades, the hair oil, the bleach, the mobile phones, the shirts, the pants, the boots, the trainers, the laces, the Alice bands, the bling bling. Maybe I'd have done a deal with Penguin Classics and allowed myself to be photographed in shadow reading Middlemarch. Beyond that, not a concession to commerce.

Even my mother who won't normally hear a word against Manchester United is glad he's going. She doesn't think a man should be a walking hoarding. "I prefer Roy Keane," she told me the other day. "He's a real bastard."

Funny, the things a mother tells her son. But I understand the thinking. A real bastard doesn't make a good hoarding. And a good hoarding is more despicable than a real bastard.

The mystery to me is that we aren't all more disgusted - more vociferously disgusted - by the avidity. Pay me and I'll wear it. Pay me and I'll use it. Pay me and I'll foist it on the schmucks who love me. How come the couple have not become a byword, as usurers, landlords and newspaper proprietors used to be, as drug dealers and company directors still are today, for greed. A global capitalist buys himself a new suit, ruins his company, and gets showered in gold. Anathema. Beckham sticks a feather in his skull, falls over on the field, and gets the millions which are rightly mine. Hero. Explain that.

I can. It's because he doesn't get drunk and beat his wife. And this we call a role model. So despairing are we of the moral condition of the proletarian young that any man who isn't a homicidal pisspot we offer as a shining example of rectitude to them. Be a moron, sell your soul to mammon, listen to crap, talk crap, wear crap - great, so long as the crap jangles and you're sober. And you can kick a ball.

The ball's the key to it. If you want to know why our socialist intelligentsia doesn't revile a man whose every second thought is cash, think balls. The more degrees we've got, the more we love a footballer. Nostalgie de la boue. Skills of the common man, bling bling. Well let me tell you something: I've curled balls from set-piece situations. I've floated them over goalkeepers' heads. I've passed with the speed of lightning and found not just the foot I've aimed for but the individual toe, and it's nothing, zilch, a mere freak gift like being double-jointed or knowing how to wiggle your ears.

You want a role model for young men? Give them Schubert, who couldn't kick a ball for toffee and died of syphilis. Give them exquisiteness. Give them poignancy. Break the bastards' little hearts.