Is football a ‘job’ or a ‘game’?

Before I am labelled simplistic for distinguishing between the two, I understand that football is very much both. But what’s interesting to debate is how much of a job it is considered by players and managers and how much of it still has the spirit of being a game. Two things prompted me to consider this question. The first was hearing Raul speaking of Cristiano Ronaldo’s professionalism with regards to training at Real Madrid, seemingly surprised by it. And the second was reading an interesting quote from Fabio Capello commenting on the ‘nervous tension’ that is instilled in young footballers in Italy.

Raul was asked about Ronaldo in an interview earlier this month and conceded (and I can’t help but speculate that he was maybe surprised by it himself):

“He is one of the best professionals I’ve seen. He is the first to arrive and the last leave training. I see him and say to myself, ‘I have to train harder’.”

It is easy to dismiss Ronaldo’s frank, outspoken media snippets and flagrant bravado as working in opposition to the idea of a professional who takes his job seriously. But the truth remains, as Ferguson and his old United teammates will vouch; he is a dedicated and committed pro. Frank Lampard is another example of a man not blessed with overt natural ability with the ball at his feet but has worked on the training ground with frightening tenacity to be one of the world’s best midfielders. I always wonder why more don’t exhibit the same level of commitment to their profession. But perhaps the true reason is that it remains only a job for so many professional footballers. Ronaldo is someone who is compelled, by a sheer love for the game as well as a commitment to his profession, to stay the extra hours and put in the time required to maintain and improve on his own standards. Perhaps that level of pure love married with ambition is what is lacking in the generic professional because they view the game as a means to an income; it is only a job for those few hours required to be at training.

Fabio Capello voiced an interesting reason why he believes in Italy that the game is considered a profession before anything else:

“In the Italian psyche there is a certain type of nervous tension which is instilled into young footballers from an early age and the result is that when they are on the pitch, they would rather be somewhere else. To them it’s a job. It’s not fun, not a game. When I was at Real Madrid everyone would stay and eat and go to the gym together. In Italy they’ll stay as long as they have to and then they’ll go. We don’t have this joy inside us. It’s almost as if they don’t like being footballers.”

Yet this is the exact same reasoning that saw Alex Ferguson state that the Italians have a ‘bigger respect for the profession’ than we do. He believed players in England did not give aspects of football that make it a job for professionals i.e. training, preparation, and nutrition large enough consideration and application (Beckham commented on the consummate professionalism of AC Milan’s method when he arrived on loan last year). On the one hand the Italian approach is depressing if Capello feels that young footballers do not have the love for the game that remains, thankfully, a prerequisite for young English players. Yet on the other hand it is a deciding factor in their longevity and sustained successes.

It is a fair assumption that in England it is appreciated when players compete to their maximal output, where effort and determination are lauded and recognised by fans even if the end product is a little off. I have written previously about that not being the case in Italian football (see ‘Can European Glory Salvage the Italian Game?’) and how competing without reward is an alien concept. Again, it is an example of the contrasting ideologies prevalent in differing cultures.

There certainly remains an intrinsic demand for competing at all times, even when the match is lost, in England. And I think it stems from having a very basic love for the game. Jose Mourinho saw this at work with his squad at Chelsea:

“If I don’t tell the payers that it’s compulsory to stretch after training, they’ll finish the session with shooting practice or kickabouts…I have players, and I’m talking some of my very best players, who think they can play ninety minutes at maximum effort one day and, the next day, play another ninety minutes just as hard.”

This is a naive stance from the payers because, physiologically speaking, the drains of ninety minutes are massive but it is indicative of a desire to always play – a love for always playing. The progress on the tactical front have certainly added a ubiquitous professionalism to football in this country; after all, a team simply cannot be successful if they do not temper a love for playing with the need to respect the many factors that go into winning (knowledge, practice, discipline etc). As far as teams are concerned the emphasis is on being professional. Results dictate success. But the best individuals (Ronaldo and Messi) merge an insatiable – and evident – enjoyment for the game first with the diligent and dedicated commitment they learn about the job afterwards.

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