Don’t do it!
What happens when arseholes win football awards?
As footballing PR snafus go, it’s fair to say it was the most recent. That newly-convicted rapist Ched Evans should have been voted into the League 1 team of the year wasn’t particularly a surprise: the voting concluded before the trial did, and he’d scored 35 goals this season for Sheffield United. That he wasn’t quietly removed from the team once his conviction was handed down was quite strange, however, and perhaps stranger still was the PFA’s subsequent contention that “It would have drawn more attention to it had we pulled him out of the team”.
No. It really, really wouldn’t.
There is, of course, an argument that off-field stuff — even when it’s as serious as this — shouldn’t matter; that the point of awards like this one is to establish who’s the best at football, not who’s the best at being a human being. Indeed, you could argue that it would be dishonest to leave anybody out, whatever they might have done, otherwise you’d somehow devalue the whole process. As baubles go, the Best Footballer Not Convicted Of War Crimes And/Or Serious Financial Malfeasance award mightn’t be the most gratifying.
This doesn’t just apply when it comes to awards, of course. Football (like life) is full of bad seeds, and while few have ever or will ever commit a crime as serious as Evans, there are, more generally, plenty of players who have done things that sit at best uneasily with those watching them. These things don’t have to be criminal: watch a season of football in England go past, and chances are you’ve cooed over a few racists, misogynists, homophobes and Tory voters. Such are footballers, because such are people.
But the fact that Frank Lampard supports a government that believes in letting poor people die, so that rich people can get richer, doesn’t make him any worse a footballer, right? Intuitively, it shouldn’t. He was just as good at passing the ball before you knew that as afterwards, therefore it doesn’t matter. Right?
Right. And yet somehow not. In a very straightforward sense it’s of no relevance at all, but in a very important way it is. Finding out that a decent footballer does, or did, something the opposite of good, makes the whole thing slightly shabby. It may not diminish them as a player in a strict sense, but it does as a person, and separating the two is an artificial exercise that doesn’t really reflect how we experience football.
Because watching football isn’t — at least for most people — an exercise in disinterested observation. What makes football fascinating isn’t just the game in itself: who’s good, who’s better, who’s bobbins, what works and what doesn’t. It’s the human drama that’s weaves in and out of everything. Take John Terry’s red card against Barcelona. It was interesting because of its effect on the game, but it was funny or tragic or hilarious or hubristic or glorious or devastating or suspicious because of who Terry is, and who you are, and how the latter feels about the former. Strip the personalities from the game and you lose much of the pleasure; lose the pleasure and, well, why are you even bothering?
That’s why the external, non-footballing actions of footballers matter when it comes to whether we should laud or deride them: it would be slightly weird if it didn’t. To appraise footballers simply as neutral actors within the boundaries of the game qua game is to wilfully disregard much of one’s response to the game, and a question of preference that you can only answer by setting large parts of yourself aside probably isn’t worth your time. And that people are willing to elide something as serious as rape to this end simply adds a weirdly pathological air to the curious, over-arching notion that football is football is football, and nothing else.
It is something else. Or at least it should be. It’s not fashionable to talk about stuff like this, but nevertheless, the fundamental joy of football comes from watching human beings triumph and fail in human ways, and finding yourself and your own humanity caught up in the sweep of the thing. It’s about people — players and fans — becoming through the game people in excelsis, and that’s why the usual rules of peopleness still apply. Remove them, and it becomes something thinner and emptier; a translucent exercise in simple achievement, a dehumanised and neutered meritocracy. Not about winning right, or good, or decent, however fuzzy and nebulous and difficult-to-pin-down those concepts might be; only about winning.
Ah, of course. As you were.
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