It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when football shifted away from heroes on the pitch to mercenaries and those who were very much getting paid to do a ‘job.’
It’s also hard to think of who the stars of today are that will have bronze statues of themselves put up on the front lawn of some flash stadium. The statues that are up now are reminders of legends of the game, those who chased something more than a pay increase and many who stuck by their clubs.
The game seems to be filtering out the last few remnants of yesterday, only to be replaced by those who know their current position is a stepping stone to somewhere else. Everyone talks about playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona, as if there is no real preference for either. But where are the Matt Le Tissiers who turned away from the tempting advances of those a few steps up the ladder? Who are the current players that will remain captains of their teams from an early age such as Tony Adams and stay on to help oversee the newcomers who need to be taught the traditions of a club?
It’s all very well cheering for the big names that come through door, the transfers which were no doubt sensationalised with a background of fireworks as the mark of something new. But it never quite does it in the way that sports is supposed to. There’s no connection between supporters and players anymore. There remains an iron gate separating the two, as if worlds apart is something normal.
Some Americans talk about the joy they get out of watching college sports over the professional leagues. College basketball and football in America can garner equal levels of interest in some states as the NBA or NFL, yet there’s little in the way of money hungry mercenaries out for their own glory. The step up to the next level and to the major leagues takes focus for many of the best college athletes, and that’s natural, but it’s surprising what happens when you take money out of the equation and make it just about sports.
That’s not to say fans don’t want a little slice of glamour, something that draws them to a stadium on a Saturday afternoon. But those aren’t heroes, not in the way they once were. It’s hard to find a role model in the game, with many taking actions that remind you what’s happened to the sport.
For clubs like Arsenal, for example, Robin van Persie is the type of player that should have become legendary in the eyes of many. So many have seen the pictures of him in an Arsenal shirt during his youth, while even more could not escape the idea of Dennis Bergkamp passing on the torch. But van Persie arrived at the peak of his powers in a time where money has seemingly taken the joy out of the game and replaced it with something that doesn’t quite sit right.
If it wasn’t enough that people are unlikely to look at footballers in the way they once did, it becomes another problem that there isn’t really any room for the everyday supporter. While players on the pitch are in another world, the gates to the stadiums are being manned by individuals demanding two-week’s wages to see a group of performers for whom there is no connection.
It’s incredibly difficult to find a comfortable place in the modern game with the direction money has taken it. Yes there are some short-term joys from football, but how many times do the majority of fans look to a time when the game seemed a little more simple, right across the board? The advancements in many aspects make the game safer for fans and players, yet it still doesn’t hold that same spark when you’re questioning a player’s performances. Is it for the club or himself? There’s always another motive for success of any kind and the desire to be somewhere better.
Everyone will remember the great moments of the recent Premier League years; the titles that were captured in breathtaking fashion, the goals that will forever be shown in a highlights package on ITV4 and the greats that glided across our fields. But are the modern greats legends for the fans in the real sense of the meaning? Not because that player who was around for two-years scored against your rival in his only appearance, but for the genuine bond he had with the club and supporters.
Fans never forget their place in the game and their role, but for players we’ve been cruelly reminded that for the large majority it is just a job. Not celebrations, just turning up and earning your pay.