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Football will not be ignoring the Olympics. In Manchester next month, players such as John Terry, Nemanja Vidic and Jamie Carragher will attend a meeting with Premier League officials to discuss what they can learn from London 2012.
At the headquarters of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the PFA representatives for all 20 clubs will be invited to reflect on the public reaction to Great Britain’s Olympians; this national love affair with the Games and what lessons the national game might be able to take from that.
This is not because football has suddenly had an epiphany. Officials at the Premier League and the Football Association have long been aware there is a perception of the multi-millionaire footballer in this country as someone who can be arrogant and aloof; that these guys exist in a bubble, detached from the rest of us and indulged by people who show them far too much deference because of the salaries they command and the celebrity status they enjoy. Sometimes their behaviour can be deeply offensive.
Yesterday Paolo Di Canio spoke of how players are being ruined by the fact that minimal success can still lead to incredible wealth. That they want the “gold diamond watch’ more than any gold medal. In a television rant he complained how the “desire goes” once they get “the big Range Rover”, of “24-year-olds with no respect”. “Money, money, money,” he continued.
The money does create an obvious divide. It cost £26million over four years to deliver the 12 medals that were secured by those brilliant British cyclists in London; £6m less than Chelsea have just spent on Eden Hazard. That said, it is Chelsea’s money, not UK Sport’s.
“Football is seen as being in a kind of cocoon,” said a Premier League spokesman on Tuesday. ‘And yet at the Olympics we have seen ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
“There is a need to re-engage a bit. More can be done and there are many things football can take from the Olympics; things that will be discussed at the players’ meeting next month.
“We would hope to see school sports and grassroots sports back on the political agenda; that our politicians respond to the Olympics too. When the young players arrive at our Premier League academies they can be two or three years behind kids of the same age on the continent.’
Footballers are forever being reminded of their responsibilities, particularly those who represent the England team. Roy Hodgson did as much with his players in a meeting on Monday night, pointing to the behaviour of Britain’s Olympians.
“We can always learn from the enormous grace and humility the Olympic athletes have shown,” said the England manager. “They have shown grace in victory and defeat.
“A lot of the qualities that we pride ourselves on in Britain, what you could call niceness, has really come out, and not just from the athletes but from everyone involved.”
It was a bit of a PR own goal that he made his comments at the same time as suggesting that he hopes John Terry will be cleared by an FA hearing into claims of abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.
Hodgson agreed that footballers who decline the opportunity to represent their country – who refuse, like Micah Richards did ahead of Euro 2012, to be on standby – damage the image of the game.
“When people don’t want to play for their country it does have a diminishing effect,” he said.
There are plenty, of course, who do, just as there are plenty of players who set a fine example that enhances football’s image. Players like Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, James Milner and Frank Lampard.
Lampard is proud to be in Switzerland as England captain and happy to acknowledge, like Hodgson, that football can take something positive from the Olympics.
He watched the athletics, securing tickets for Usain Bolt’s 200m and that astonishing men’s 800m race. “You get lucky in the ballot?” one reporter joked.
Lampard laughed before making a more serious point. “We know we have our failures in football,” he said. “The Olympics was fantastic. The atmosphere in the stadiums, the interaction between the athletes from different countries. It’s not just footballers. If we can all take something from that it can only be a good thing.
“It’s natural to compare. But football and the Olympics are very different. The atmosphere is different. I think we all love football for what it is. We love that tribalism. It’s what makes it.”
Lampard is right. We have to be careful here. The Olympic Park was Disneyland for sports fans and sports journalists alike; a sporting Utopia where great things were happening at every venue. It was one hell of a ride. The crowds were wonderful; the atmosphere in the stadium when Mo Farah was winning the 10,000 metres and then the 5,000m just electric.
But that was not a crowd divided by tribalism. It was a crowd united in seeing Farah win, or Bolt win, or Jessica Ennis win. Only when an official demanded that Bolt return the baton he had just carried to a world record in the sprint relay did we hear that crowd boo and jeer. We don’t want that at our football grounds. We want the rivalry, the intensity.
When Rebecca Adlington lost the event she was expected to win, taking bronze in the 800m freestyle she had secured gold in four years earlier in Beijing, the crowd reduced her to tears by singing her name.
Nobody at the Olympics is under the kind of scrutiny that has become part of everyday life for footballers, on and off the field. It has made some footballers afraid to play for England at Wembley and others afraid to engage with the media and the public.
After finishing well out of the medals in the 1500m, Lisa Dobriskey implied she had lost to a bunch of drug cheats; a complaint that made a few headlines but did not generate the kind of media storm that would have followed had that accusation been levelled by a footballer.
This is not to say that many of our footballers could not show more humility and a bit more class. Just as there are plenty of football fans who could improve the atmosphere at our football grounds by cutting out the moronic vitriol that is too often uttered.
As Hodgson said on Tuesday, the fans have to do their bit too. It’s good to let off a bit of steam at the end of a working week but it needs to remain within the boundaries of what is acceptable.
English football is a unique and enthralling sport. Yes, it needs to improve its image, but let’s not over-react.
The FA made a big effort at Euro 2012 to improve the image of the national team. They engaged more with the tournament, and the supporters, by staying in the centre of Krakow and they also sought to rebuild a slightly fractured relationship with the media. Hodgson even asked his players to sing the national anthem.
It all amounted to a good start; a step in the right direction and good PR. The Olympics has helped in pointing the way forward from here. – Daily Mail