For many, even including fans of the sport, the business of soccer has been tainted by the plasticity of a value system that offers less for love and loyalty and so much more for ambipedal mercenaries.
The modern game, called football in most parts of the world, often than not stands as a singular testament to what goes wrong when lofty ideals are weighed according to money. We hear such things as “the spirit of the game” when purists mount a losing stand against the sacrilege of Paris Saint-Germain, owned by oil-rich Qatar, winning the French top-flight soccer league.
This death of the spirit of the game is traced by many to around the time of the rise of David Beckham, a man known to people State-side through Spice Girl wife Victoria, and a little team called Los Angeles Galaxy. Beckham deserves a lot of flack for his terrible hair-dos but he certainly did not sell the spirit of the game like a Faustian transaction.
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The men before Becks did all bad by themselves – he was simply more attractive. And if we are keeping it honest, what chipped away at the spirit of the game was sanctioned in boardrooms from Manchester, England to Madrid, Spain.
These days, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the biggest talents on a soccer pitch anywhere in the world. Combined, the trio is worth about $1 billion, the bulk of which is actually not from the wages of weariness in Europe’s magnificent stadiums.
The indignation at what soccer has become carries some merit. But in England, they have a way of expressing their qualms with money in soccer, the logic of which should be all-too-familiar to some Americans.
Look at the Daily Mail from January 10, 2018:
A Manchester City youngster, who has never started a Premier League match, has splashed out on a mansion with an asking price of £2.25million.
Tosin Adarabioyo, who last year negotiated a £25,000-a-week contract after threatening to leave, is the new owner of a six-bedroom home in Cheshire.
The 20-year-old defender has made just seven appearances for the club in the cup games and the Champions League – but has never featured in the English Premier League.
Now, look at the Daily Mail from October 18, 2018:
Manchester City’s Phil Foden has set up his future in the area by buying a new house, thought to be worth around £2million, for himself and his family, Sportsmail can reveal.
The 18-year-old’s parents, Phil and Claire, are thought to have been involved in choosing the house and he is determined to keep the close-knit family together despite his emergence as one of England’s outstanding talents.
The family are not wealthy, though Foden’s success has allowed them to move from Edgeley, a modest Stockport suburb, to Bramhall, in affluent south Manchester, to be close to the independent school Foden has been put through by City.
The first report was when the Daily Mail thought there was a problem when UK-born Nigerian Adarabioyo, who had never featured for his team’s senior side in a league match, could afford a $3 million mansion. For a clearer sense of the portrait they sought to paint, readers should not have to miss the Daily Mail capturing the fact that Adarbioyo threatened to leave if he was not given an improved contract.
In the second report, incidentally, on a player just two years younger than Adarabioyo and in the same soccer team, the Daily Mail wrote an ode to 18-year-old Phil Foden who bought a house almost $2.5 million for his parents. They also made sure to let you know young Foden is one of “England’s outstanding talents” from a working-class background.
There is enough evidence from other outlets such as The Sun, The Sunday Times and Daily Star to help with further comparative analyses of news reports, however, that would make for a better but boring sociological piece.
What is for sure is that, the conflation of soccer losing its way and the emergence of the unapologetic black soccer star is not accidental.
In 1974, Paul Hartmann and Charles Husband argued in Racism and the Mass Media that British media was intentional about the production and reproduction of negative images about black Britons. But that is not very difficult work because the prejudice already existed in wider British society.
Racism, it appears, tends to be lazy mental work.
For a black English soccer star, one of the more unfortunate side effects of succeeding in a world that has only recently found itself agreeable to your ingenuity is that you are expected to tell your story and define yourself in a certain way.
Successful American sportsmen know that too. Why do you want to take a knee? For what? Be grateful you are in the United States of ‘Merica.
“Shut up and dribble,” Laura Ingraham told Lebron James when the latter said he thought some comments made by America’s 45th president’s were “laughable and scary”.
The room doesn’t quite exist for the black star athlete to be anything more than a grateful star athlete. In recent times, in the UK, English soccer player Raheem Sterling’s relationship with the media has illustrated the paradox of black athletic success.
Born to Jamaican parents, Sterling was plucked from a relatively smaller club in London to Liverpool F.C. in the north of the country. It was at Liverpool that Sterling was announced to the world, a nimble-footed and fast-running little black man.
When Manchester City, the same team from the Adarabioyo and Foden stories, approached Liverpool in 2015 to buy Sterling, Raheem was ready to leave but Liverpool did not want to sell.
Looking back, a generous defense of the UK media’s antipathy towards Sterling would be that that the media did not want one of England’s biggest talents to join Manchester City, a team owned by an Emirati billionaire who was “destroying football”.
Sterling was called “greedy” for wanting to join a richer team and “ungrateful” to Liverpool who had brought him to prominence. Jordan Henderson, Sterling’s mate at Liverpool, had moved from Sunderland, a much smaller and poorer team to Liverpool in 2011 but his ambition never rubbed off the media in the wrong way.
Jordan Brian Henderson is white.
Sterling did get his move, after which he has been called cheap for shopping at a bargain store and being told he drives a “pimped-up” Mercedes. Who can forget that time he bought a house for his mother right after England bowed out of the European Championships in 2016.
The Daily Mail story headline read:
“That’s a lot of Sterling! £180,000-a-week England flop Raheem shows off blinging house he bought for his mum – complete with jewel-encrusted bathroom – hours after flying home in disgrace from Euro 2016”.
You would struggle to find that degree of chiding for any of England’s equally overpaid white players who spent money after the disappointing European tournament.
The media everywhere rarely holds up a mirror to itself. But the lack of reflection for those in the UK news business even as Sterling became the worst target of online racist abuse in English sports, was quite unsettling.
The Sun said it found it “ridiculous and offensive” that the newspaper was accused of fanning racial animus against Sterling. They swore that the light in which they cast the player’s “off-field behavior has nothing to do with skin color”.
These days, when ultra-radical fans in Russia, Italy and other countries in European soccersphere have managed to get the attention of the well-meaning fans with racist chants, UK media seemed to have toned down on their own ante.
Going forward, the problem will not vanish because it is not spoken about. But at least, observers of the sport in England can appreciate that English soccer seems to have acknowledged that there is a conversation that has to happen.
In the meantime, Sterling and others can only hope they would be allowed to purchase their houses in peace. The price of the spirit of soccer is most likely in the checkbook of a white CEO.