The Emperor's New Clothes: Footballers

Footballers, eh? Underperforming, overpaid ... Maybe, but it's a game of two halves, argues David Randall

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It's not hard to list all the things that make professional football in this country deeply unappetising. Shirt-pulling, hand-balling, diving and all the other casual cheating of an industry where even ball boys think sportsmanship is for losers; £150,000-a-week salaries, tinted-window supercars traded in as soon as an oil change is required, shopaholic female hangers-on, struggling under the weight of their shopping bags and make-up; laddish outings to nightclubs in the hunt for groupies dim enough to agree to go back to a hotel room; and players who've turned their bodies into walking and spitting billboards for the local tattoo parlour. All in all, a sport once polluted by the behaviour of its fans now fouled instead by the antics of its players.

And, even if we avert our gaze and think only of the score lines, little comfort is available. The top division is now so warped by cash it is a contest open to only the three richest of its clubs; the rest no more likely to win it than a film extra is to collect an Oscar. The game, by common consent, has gone, and you'd have to be a lobotomised subscriber to SkySports, thrilling to every one of its hyperventilating promo ads, to disagree.

Yet, deep within football's wretched narrative, there exists the capacity for rare surprise; for something approaching natural justice; for fairy tales, even. Last week, Swansea City reached the first major final of their 100-year history by beating Oligarch United (or Chelsea, as they used to be known). Thus did a club which, 10 years ago, was just one game away from dropping out of the league altogether, beat the European champions. More enchanting even than that was the victory over Aston Villa which made Bradford City the first club from the league's bottom tier to reach a Wembley final. You have to go back to 1911, when the hull of the Titanic was a sound structure awaiting fitting out, for their last major trophy. Their heroes are the antithesis of the millionaire yobs of the Premiership: James Hanson (above), who a few years ago was working in his local Co-op supermarket, and goalkeeper Matt Duke, a cancer survivor. Football, it seems, is not entirely a lost cause yet.

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