For The Love of The Game

For The Love of The Game

There’s a dying breed of football fan. It’s the kind who believes that players are as deeply in love with the game as those watching from the stands. By now, all but the most deluded are at least vaguely aware that for a lot of professionals, football is exactly that – a profession.

It can be hard for fans to accept that a sport in which they invest so deeply is not such an all-consuming passion to those for whom it is a livelihood. As a fan, you want to believe the men or women you go to the bother of adoring because of their ability to kick a ball around a pitch – or the colours they wear while doing so – live and breathe the game as much as you.

In a way, we want them to love football because we want our adoration requited. Who hasn’t felt the sting when a lover or partner professes no interest in a favourite song or film, the pang of disappointment when the desired mutual appreciation of Die Hard turns out to be mere fantasy? Something similar is at work in relation to the footballer-fan dynamic.

And so we pursue the players, binding them to us through a forced marriage to which they are obliged to pay lip service. In essence, the fan becomes in the eyes of a footballer nothing more than a persistent, besotted Calypso, determined to tie down an aloof, disinterested Odysseus. Some supporters deceive themselves by thinking that such a union could be anything other than a marriage of convenience, but it’s not. Having escaped from captivity on Calypso’s island, Odysseus never again thought of her.

So it is that the lovelorn fan succumbs to despair, anger or disbelief when the comfortable illusion of star-crossed love between footballers and football is shattered. “I play football for money,” said Benoit Assou-Ekotto, and watched as supporters worldwide went into meltdown. “I’m not a massive football fan, really. Quite a lot more players than let on are the same,” commented Bobby Zamora in 2012. But why does the he-should-be-happy-to-be-doing-what-so-many-would-love-to-do lunatic fringe get so worked up about statements such as this? The reality is that fans resent Assou-Ekotto and Zamora because they burst the bubble. There’s anger that they’re living the dream and don’t seem to particularly care, and there’s anger that they possess the talent others covet but don’t see it as anything other than a work tool. Alas, if only they hadn’t said anything, we could all have gone on living in denial.

Reaction to sportsmen’s occasional lack of “appreciation” of their talent takes a slightly different form in the USA, a country whose population we’re led to believe defines itself as much by its collective wage-packet as anything else. Perhaps there’s more scope for grass-roots empathy with the earnings-first mind-set of professional athletes in a land where sports teams are known as “franchises” and the highest-paid public employee in at least 35 of 50 states is a university sports coach.

When John Moffitt quit the NFL citing health concerns in November 2013, aged just 27, the reporting on his actions was interesting. “Moffitt […] walked away from about $1 million in salary [and] various benefits for retirees who play at least three seasons,” wrote the New York Times. “Walking away from the game will cost Moffitt up to $1 million. He forfeits the $312,500 owed to him for the remainder of the 2013 campaign, as well as his $752,500 salary due for 2014,” informed Bleacher Report. No mention of “walking away” from the dream of a young life spent playing sport, just shock at such large sums of money going unclaimed.

“After yesterday being forced […] to announce his retirement at 26 […] he will instead have one haunting question on his mind: how much could I have achieved?” wrote Paul Doyle in the Guardian about Dean Ashton’s retirement from football in 2009. “It was painful for me when I retired when I was 39 - he is only 26. Football is something you do with all your heart and passion so I leave it to you to imagine how he is feeling right now,” said Gianfranco Zola, Ashton’s manager at the time. It seems there is more pragmatism on the part of American sports commentators. They express regret at lost earnings rather than a lost lover.

Despite all the words said and written on the topic, many football fans still seem unable to accept the idea that the professional game – note: professional – is first and foremost a career. There are plenty of people who would, and do, play football for free, but professional footballers do not fall into that category. Football is a job and, inevitably, not everyone loves their work. Just because a child is born with a gift for sport rather than carpentry or engineering does not mean he is beholden to appreciate it more than the latter, more prosaic occupations.

No matter what you do in life, it can be a grind. Writing about career-changers on, political scientist Marc Bodnick notes: “When they first picked their career, they had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives. They had a very narrow view of what career options were available. […] Then, after doing that profession for 7-10+ years, they feel locked in; they don’t know what to do next.” Bodnick’s points are as applicable to footballers as they are to anyone else. It’s just as easy for people like Zamora and Assou-Ekotto to become bogged down in careers they don’t enjoy as it is for chefs, writers, plumbers and mathematicians (etc.) to do the same.

It’s often said that players are out of touch with supporters, but surely that must mean the reverse is also true. As much as footballers don’t identify with fans, fans cannot possibly identify with professional footballers. Of course we want to, and sometimes think we can, but we can’t. So why do we insist on projecting onto them how we think they should feel or conduct themselves in relation to their jobs? Let’s stop expecting footballers to be anything other than what they are: professionals doing what they’re paid to do.

This article was first published in Pickles issue 8, 2014. To purchase the new issue or check out the latest Pickles gear, head to our webshop.

Words by Luke Ginnell
Illustration by Meen Choi