Not only did the opening weekend of the English Premier League remind us that we are blessed with the world’s most exciting domestic football competition, for me it clearly demonstrated why we all fell in love with the Olympics during London 2012.
So many voices in the media and members of the public ringing radio phone ins have been rubbishing our national game, urging our overpaid footballers to grow up, learn how to be humble and reconnect with the fans. But jumping on the bandwagon of badmouthing our footballers is a lazy reaction that misses the real lessons to be learned from The Greatest Show on Earth.
As Gary Neville so perfectly voiced in his Daily Mail column: “I don’t mean to shy away from the real challenges football faces. We do need to link football back to the community, get closer to the fans and make it more affordable. There is excess. There are problems with the globalisation of the game. And there are incidents of ill-discipline by players.”
But one of the biggest differences between football and the Olympics for me is the way it is portrayed by the media, who take great delight in whipping up confrontation, hatred and the ugly side of the beautiful game. And I’m not just talking about the effect on the players, I’m talking about the fans. Too many football fans lose all sense of decency and respect when they are supporting their team.
How many times have you seen slow motion replays on Match of the Day and witnessed ordinary people, and there are just as many foul-mouthed women as men these days, clearly screaming obscenities at the players on the pitch.
Could you ever imagine such a scene at the Olympic Stadium where the partisan host nation always had the dignity and appreciation of sport to applaud great performances, whatever nation they represented. Many of these are the same people who attend football matches. But can you imagine such respect at a major football match. The answer is ‘No.’ But it wasn’t always like that. When I was a kid I remember standing on the Stretford End and applauding with the rest of the crowd when we witnessed great footballing skill. So what has changed?
Maybe I am biting the hand that fed me for several intervening decades, but the honest answer is the media. The media has a lot to answer for when it comes to the way the minds of ordinary fans have been polluted by headline writers and talk show hosts who can never resist promoting confrontational emotions beyond friendly rivalry to the point of pure hatred.
Whether it is a vile outpouring of abuse in the stadiums, radio phone-ins or more frequently these days on Twitter, there is no avoiding the fact that today’s average football fan is more accustomed to giving out negative comments than paying respect.
Watching Marouane Fellaini produce a brilliant matchwinning display as Everton upset Manchester United 1-0 at Goodison on Monday night, it was embarrassing to hear an abusive voice shout ‘break his f******* legs” every time the Belgian star touched the ball. I hesitate to call the abuser a football fan. Hooliganism is all but dead in Britain. But this ill-educated person is typical of so many followers of football encouraged by the modern media.
Journalism these days is all about comment and voicing an opinion, and sensational headlines and controversy is good for business. Negative stories are easier to write than positive ones and every journalist knows how they can shape public opinion by the way they present stories, the sports that we watch and sporting rivalries. The consequential atmosphere of hostility generated between ordinary fans and players by the media is the thing I hate most about football. Why can’t we have healthy rivalry backed by an appreciation of the beauty of the sport
Before the Olympics started most of the media were trying to bring down the Games with a succession of negative stories about security, transport and overspending. Happily the Great British public saw through the spin and were swept away by an unprecedented wave of euphoria generated by outstanding sporting excellence and a magnificent management of the Games that proved all the doubters wrong.
Sports writers were able to glory in the remarkable achievements of Team GB and the voices of the hatchet men in the media who revel in spreading gloom and confrontation were drowned out by the wave of positive stories. Sadly in football, too many negative stories over many years have led to a massive disconnect between the players and the media they are unable to trust. While too many fans have lost sight of what sport is all about.
For a fabulous fortnight both the public and the media remembered how to appreciate the beauty of sport. Now the Olympics are over let us show the same respect to football – and maybe players will respond by discovering the spirit of fair play, excellence and good sportsmanship that we witnessed at London 2012.