Elliot Gomm on a faltering FA, farcical footballers, and why our game is pushing the big red button.
I have been on a mission in recent weeks. A mission to find ‘real’ football. Well not even ‘real’ football, just football without politics, without pundits, without headlines.
This journey took me to the Weston Homes Community Stadium to watch Colchester United beat Stevenage by a single goal. It was glorious. A friend and I got a pie and a brew, sat on the cold terrace and screamed instructions and orders until our throats were sore.
It was a welcome break from the world of racism allegations, player protests and the constant coverage of abusive tweets by misguided players that has marred top-flight football for the past 18 months. Sometimes it simply becomes too much. Some of us fans want a return to the business at hand, the business we adore and will forever be passionate about.
It all seems to have gone on too long. But why?
Of course the players themselves are mostly to blame for all their mishaps and wrong-doings, and the point will be forever made that they are modern day role models, and need to act in an appropriate manner. But until we start sending well-rounded, educated and polite people out onto the field of play, instead of talented footballers, they will never be equipped to deal with the fame, publicity and money handed to them from such a young age. The majority of footballers come from ‘broken homes’ from poorer areas of the country, and typically spent most of their youth playing football instead of studying, and are forever being reminded of it by the media circus that surrounds the higher echelons of the game.
Today’s media is one that NEVER sleeps. Whether spread across newspapers back pages (and often the front pages), on websites, blogs, social networks, television coverage and radio broadcasts it becomes difficult to escape the sports ever-expanding influence on society. And, of course, scandal sells. Newspapers have no need to write lengthy match reports with related detailed tactical analysis anymore, because this simply does not sell papers. If we want to know the score we can flick onto Sky Sports News, use the latest app or check out the hundreds of twitter posts revealing the facts, leaving the column inches free for the latest in the long list of footballer foul-play.
But who has the control over the workings of the game? Who has the real power to change the education of young football stars? Who doles out the punishment after our young black players get abused in Serbia? The suits. The men at the top. The educated people that run the game, the Sepp Blatter’s, Michel Platini’s and David Bernstein’s of this world.
Referees are accused of a lack of consistency in decision making, but it seems to be rife throughout the sport, especially from the FA, UEFA and FIFA too.
The Uruguayan frontman was banned for eight matches for calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra a phrase that, according to the Liverpool star, is not offensive in his native language. The saga then continued as the two failed to shake hands as Suarez obviously felt hard-done-by for his sentence.
The Chelsea captain has been through a criminal court and an FA tribunal after racially abusing Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. Contrary to the police investigation, the FA found Terry guilty, handing him a hefty (but probably pointless) fine and a four match ban. The phrase Terry was found guilty of using does not need repeating, but does seem to be more purposeful and vindictive than in the Suarez case.
In no way is there a scale on which associations, or even criminal courts, should measure racial abuse. And maybe an over-the-top, making-a-statement type fine or ban should be introduced as a blanket for ANY racially motivated language. But it would seem the FA is a long way from this idea. This poses the question, exactly why are the Suarez and Terry cases different? Why are the punishments so different? And if the FA are not going to set a standardised ban for any player (or referee for that matter) using racial language, how on earth did they figure out that the Suarez case was worth double the time on the sidelines.
I am not defending Suarez in the slightest. In fact, I personally believe the Uruguayan to be a vulgar representative of the modern game, and a despicable excuse for a Liverpool number seven. However, he could have felt slightly aggrieved (commence frantic Suarez-esque arm-waving, face pulling and ground hitting) when seeing that Terry had only received a four match ban.
The FA probably hoped this would all blow over once the punishments were doled out and the players got back to actually playing football. But no. Thanks to the world of social media, Ashley Cole gave his well-educated and considered response to the outcome of the FA’s investigations. By claiming that the FA were accusing him of lying to the committee undertaking the investigation into the Terry/Ferdinand case, and calling the FA a ‘bunch of t**ts’ in the meantime, Cole himself received a fine, but no ban.
Is all this the fault of the FA? Can the unsolicited world of social media be blamed? Are the media accountable for blowing the issue into everyone’s faces? Well, frankly, yes.
But first and foremost the players are to blame. This sport has granted its stars with more money than sense, and now they have a platform to vent. However, the FA and the other football associations are certainly not helping the situation. The start of the Suarez/Evra saga was a year ago, and the game has been marred by these allegations ever since. It is a relevant subject in our modern multicultural society, and therefore the issue will continue to sell newspapers and raise viewer ratings. The media event will not cease until all avenues of coverage have been exhausted. And in the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United football gave the media vultures another piece of scrap meat to pick and peck at.
Chelsea Football Club have put in a formal complaint against referee Mark Clattenburg for using racist language towards midfielder John Obi Mikel. These are allegations that yet again have forced the FA to begin another lengthy and in-depth investigation, prolonging the issue further.
So who are the FA going to put their faith in? One of their best and most consistent referees? Or their greatest commodity, the player?
There are consequences that the FA will consider, even if it is unethical to do so. If they find Clattenburg guilty they are going against their own trend and form by punishing one of their own. Clattenburg’s career will be tarnished if not finished and the ‘RESPECT’ campaign will be deemed poignantly pointless.
On the other hand, if they back their referee they are accusing not just Mikel of fabricating information, they are also putting these claims on Chelsea. This would place the whole club into a state of disrepute. This is a club that is run by one of the richest men in the world, captained by a man whose private life is far from private and who has been found guilty of racial abuse, and whose celebrated left-back has had his life spread across the tabloid papers after sex scandals, divorce proceedings, intern shootings and abusive tweets. Chelsea have put their already blemished reputation on the line, a reputation that could be all but wiped out in one foul swoop by the Football Association.
The FA might be slightly relieved to see the papers claiming the Chelsea players may have simply heard the referee wrong through his supposedly thick Geordie accent. Whether this being Chelsea slyly doing a U-turn on the allegations, or a genuine mistake, it could let the FA off the hook.
However there is still a longer lasting issue at hand. After several lengthy investigations, player protests against wearing the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign t-shirts and confusing inconsistencies in player punishments the FA have to find a way of steadying the flow of fresh controversies. In the short-term the FA will once again hope that there is a period of football without any new dilemmas. In the long term the solution may lie closer to home.
St Georges Park. The Football Associations branding-spanking new facility centre, which boasts not only the highest level of training facilities, but also corridors upon corridors of seminar rooms, class rooms and lecture halls. This all points in one direction. Education.
I am not going to start ranting on about how football should take a leaf out of rugby’s book and encourage its players to go into further education, because frankly it doesn’t bother me that Rooney cannot recite Shakespeare’s sonnets or whether Walcott can provide a critical analysis of the credit crunch. Leave that up to the experts. But modern day football players need to have a comprehensive education into the workings of the media. Players already learn how to do objective interviews and how to politely sit on the fence on every issue, but they need to know how to use the new media to their advantage, instead of it becoming a place for them to vent their frustrations.
I am not proposing to stifle the opinions of our professional footballers until they become characterless puppets, much the opposite. By using St Georges’ classrooms to put on workshops and seminars about how to use the media to their advantage, and who to aim your frustrated tweets and posts at, and more importantly who NOT to aim them at, young players will develop an understanding that will prevent unwarranted and media escalating comments.
And at some point down the line, we may have a game that has a cleaner reputation on and off the pitch, as well as media savvy players, who cause more headlines for their talent than their mishaps.