The beautiful game has started to turn ugly

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In one of the first discussions on youthful antisocial behaviour during the 1990s, I noted in a speech that most of the lads' magazines tended to be preoccupied with half-naked women and bad-boy footballers.

Their focus at the time was invariably on Dennis Wise, Stan Collymore and Vinny Jones and there was almost a whiff of celebration of their misdemeanours on the pitch. They were "in-your-face" types and thereby role models for the characters these magazines sought to cultivate as their readership.

In the run-up to last Christmas there has been a spate of critical columns in the newspapers about more recent bad-boy footballer behaviour, both on and off the pitch. Highlights - if that is the appropriate term - were Manchester United's bonding party and Ashley Cole's V-sign to the Arsenal fans who used to pay his wages.

But the purpose of this commentary was not simply to lay into the foibles of the millionaires from the Premier League, nor even just to trot out the mantra that with privilege comes obligation. It was to draw attention to the steady erosion of standards that was now permeating down through all levels of football organisation.

No wonder British football is in such a mess when junior leagues of primary and lower secondary-age children cannot find young referees because parents of the players hurl constant abuse at them. Older referees in particular report being surrounded by players challenging their decisions in clearly threatening ways.

Gordon Taylor, chairman of the Professional Footballers' Assocation, is clear that something needs to be done - but no one is quite sure what. So we end up doing apparently very little. I would have thought football authorities would have the regulatory clout to control and, if necessary, sanction the excesses of their own professionals.

As Terence Blacker wrote in The Independent, "normal rules don't apply in football's parallel universe". Both on and off the pitch we see behaviour that, if followed by mere mortals, would lead to a whole range of bans, sanctions, ridicule, exclusion and, ultimately, police action.

Footballers seem to peddle the message that money and status provide immunity from the normal rules of human relationships. On the other hand, the newspapers that have suddenly become so self-righteous on this front still seem happy to carry Sky Sports advertisements that depict a range of sports - with football absolutely central among the images - as bloody, noisy battlegrounds more akin to Spartacus or Braveheart than anything to do with a beautiful game.

- Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan, and a member of the Youth Justice Board. Email

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