So then, after our completely predictable exit from Euro 2004 during the summer, England’s footballers are now trying to qualify for the World Cup in 2006, and what hard work they’re making of it. They didn’t play too badly against Poland and won the match 2 – 1, but then decided, in an act of childish petulance, that they weren’t going to talk to the spiky media because someone had written some shittythings about them since their epic draw last week against the steely might and legendary footballing skills of…Austria.
Come on lads… do we need another own goal? No we don’t, so please don’t create PR disasters off the pitch: your performance on it is too often quite sufficient to get the flak. Aren’t your fame and your money sufficient? Isn’t it enough that you’ll earn in a year more than most of your fans will earn in two lifetimes? No, you don’t understand, but perhaps we don’t understand you either.
Inside football there’s always been an attitude that if you’ve never actually played the game at the top level, you’ll never really grasp it, or the way players think about it. To be trusted you need to have been bloodied by the relentless pressure of the professional game, and that’s where Sven Goran Ericsson scores so highly with his England squad. While sports correspondents and fans may see the players as bit part actors in an on-going soap opera, the Head Coach has to concentrate on balancing them as competitive footballers, trying to make the best of their individual traits and ball-skills as he merges them all into a winning team.
High-minded stuff, all concentrating on what happens on the pitch and at the training ground. The trouble is that nowadays so much of the life of a footballer is lived elsewhere. In restaurants, in bars, in public and in front of the TV cameras, and how few footballers are able to cope. But Sven, need we be reminded, has been coping with his own media-management challenge. When the England manager’s sex life becomes the story, as it did over the summer, you know there’s a problem.
In the USA they understand this. Their hugely-paid black, urban basketball stars have professional media coaching like politicians or pundits, so instead of being either cliché-spouting ‘over the moon’ parrots or completely gauche and tongue-tied youths, any comment they might be asked to make in public, win or lose, appears thoughtful, sincere, and contributes to the overall PR of their team. They’re taught to respect the media’s role in the whole picture, to keep good-humoured, win or lose, and let their position as flawed gods work in their favour by the simple use of charm.
So the England team need a bit of help managing their media profile. The days of football journalists researching stories about football and having them appear on the football pages are fast disappearing. The Game is front page news now, yet beyond Beckham, Owen and a handful of others, the cast don’t think of themselves as responsible role models, hence the thoughtlessness of their press boycott on Wednesday night.
And you can hardly blame them when, behind their club gates, they’re shielded and cosseted and rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. Just occasionally you might be bollocked by the Assistant Coach for staying out too late, or by the Head Coach for getting into the tabloids for some non-footballing reason, but it’s hardly parenting. It’s not what your father would say if you started behaving like a prima donna around the house and refused to speak to your granny.
I realise it’s not exactly relaxing being an international footballer, but perhaps they need reminding of the mechanic by which they’ve been elevated to such eminence in this celebrity-struck society of ours. It’s because fans pay money at club and league level, and pay it through the nose. Their fans pay their salaries, week after week, funding the exotic lifestyles of this squad of young men who took it upon themselves to deny those same fans access to their feelings immediately following a most welcome England victory. We urgently need to talk.