Has Football Lost Its High Moral Ground?

Last weekend, Joey Barton took it upon himself to liven up a rather dull game, by yet again making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In a game short on quality and excitement he (and a few others) took centre stage in a game in which ‘Football surrenders moral high ground’, according to the headline on Henry Winter’s Telegraph column.

But…deep down we were all bored watching that Newcastle match. And then suddenly we weren’t. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it part of what we love about the game – misbehaving pantomime villains are as much a part of football as floodlights and penalty kicks.

So are morals removed from the modern game? Well it’s unfair to lump all footballers in together. Some misbehave, some are model professionals. The idea that they are role models though and have an obligation to act a certain way is laughable to me. Just because some earn a lot of money and are popular with children does not give them an obligation to be role models. And the money swimming about in the modern game pretty much ensures quite a few will be anything but. Footballers are idolised for their football skills and nothing more. But to slightly contradict myself, if they do have a duty, it is on the pitch rather than off it. Their actions can be copied in playgrounds around the country, but this will be the last thing on their mind when they do what they do.

The question should be asked if morals were ever important to players, but you’d probably have to ask a pensioner that.
It’s been a long time since footballers were free from blame – Billy Meredith was involved in a bribery scandal in 1904 and banned, match-fixing has been a thread through football’s entire history – a history of gambling, smoking, boozing, womanising, sleeping with prostitutes, more gambling, fighting with taxi drivers, orgies, a culture of bling, more boozing, womanizing, gambling, and repeat to fade, and you have an idea of some of the headlines footballers have been making for decades.

Of course in the old days, players were more in touch with the common man. They earned a normal wage, travelled with the fans to matches, and had often been brought up locally. But players are merely products of their time – modern players fit into the consumerist society we now live in that makes people riot for the chance of some free trainers and an mp3 player.

What angers me most when watching football nowadays is that across the world, the desire to win has led to the propensity to lie, the culture of deception. Barton claimed he had been punched when everyone knew this was not the case. But then again, he does seem to struggle to distinguish between a slap and a punch, as when he most definitely punched Pedersen on the football field last season, he could clearly be seen denying he had done it. The hypocrisy was staggering – accusing Gervinho of diving (he didn’t), and then throwing himself to the floor to get the player sent off. Always the victim.

During Barton’s twitter wars this week, he mentioned that he does what is best for the team – it is not his job to keep Gervinho on the pitch – and that just about sums up the approach of some footballers (Robbie Savage unsurprisingly agreed). But then he has been taught well by his team-mate Steven Taylor. The man who once handled a shot on the line and then tried to wriggle out of it by re-enacting a scene from Platoon, was seen to be telling the referee that Barton had been punched despite the fact he had his back to the incident at the time. He then triggered the 5th amendment when questioned about his comments after the game. Stay classy Steven.

We have it easy in England – if you are worried about the actions of players on the football field in this country, you’d be in cardiac arrest if you lived in Spain, where magical skill goes hand-in-hand with appalling cheating on the pitch, where the game often seems to be as much about deceiving the referee and getting opposition players sent off as it is about scoring the goals (the two are linked of course). Only this week you may have watched the 30-man brawl at the end of El Clasico, and when the manager Jose Mourinho is poking the eyes of opposition staff, it doesn’t provide much of a moral compass for the players. When Pepe isn’t assaulting opposition players Busquets is rolling around the floor as if he has been shot, Iniesta is throwing himself to the ground with impunity (I know it is sacrilege to even suggest this could happen), and Messi is hacked to the ground every 2 minutes. Meanwhile in the Argentinean 5th division, a you tube video shows a referee being attacked by a whole team (plus managerial staff), before fleeing the pitch and escaping by vaulting over a wall.
Rather than automatically blame football players for all of the sport’s ills, let’s not forget many of them go onto the field with specific orders to go down easily, to block and foul at corners, and to level the playing field with rather odious tactics. The (lack of) morals can be learnt from those above.

So are players worse than ever? Half the problem is that everything is analysed to the nth degree – every foul, penalty appeal, red card, every incident replayed on a constant loop until the will to love has long since departed. All these incidents we see now have probably been going on for decades, but there was no camera at every angle to analyze incidents in the 1960’s, no 24-hour news network to fire us up into a frenzy of moral indignation.

And perhaps the stakes are higher. What Barton alluded to, about doing the best for the team, whatever the morals of the situation, is a state of mind shared with many footballers. The modern game is about winning at all costs; the stakes are higher than ever, the rewards bigger, the failures more devastating. And all because of money, as usual. Gamesmanship replaces sportsmanship, as the result is everything.

Having money at a young age does not help either. Brian Marwood said last week about keeping on Patrick Vieira after he retired from playing: “When we signed Patrick I remember telling Garry Cook that he would be one of the best signings we will ever make.He’s going to offer so much to us. He’s an inspirational figure to the younger players and I want him to counsel them. Sometimes they want everything immediately and can be petulant about it. Patrick is there to help them understand the process, to talk to them about contracts, loan deals and things like that.”

We do however seem to have a strange idea of what constitutes immoral behaviour nowadays. The scale of evilness in life and football, starting with the least evil seems to be roughly: parking ticket offences, swearing into a TV camera, fraud, diving, bank robbery, spitting, GBH, waving an imaginary yellow card, serial killing, and worst of all, failing to shake the hand of an opposition manager. Arguing, fouling, and falling over on a football pitch is not the epitome of evil – there are worse things going on in the world.

The conclusion? Don’t look to footballers for your moral guide. To do so would be as ridiculous as looking towards bankers, MPs, rock stars or your local estate agent. They are human beings like us all, which means they tend to be imperfect, which keeps “Fleet Street” in business, keeps us debating the game endlessly, and bizarrely boosts interest in football. Footballers do much good away from the public eye, such as endless charity and community work, and right now Joey Barton is back on Twitter pushing for justice for the Hillsborough 96. No one should expect perfection from their football players – that way, you won’t end up disappointed. If football has lost the high moral ground, it did so a long, long time ago.