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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that alcohol and sport go hand in hand. Whether it’s enjoying a beer in the pub with the football, going to the self-proclaimed piss-up that is the cricket, or partying hard in Sugar after giving York a well-deserved beating. Or the customary spraying of a bottle of champagne on the podium after a Grand Prix. The list goes on, showing the intrinsic link, not only between fans and drink, but players too, regardless of the level they are playing at.
A couple of weeks ago we saw a huge controversy surrounding the England football team and their drinking habits. A huge controversy that I have to say was completely unwarranted. For the informed, England beat Scotland, went for a few drinks and off to a nightclub to celebrate. As much as I love football, I am a big proponent of the fact that they are ‘just doing a job’. A job that generally speaking is to win. As anyone who has been in the working world will know, if you have a great day at the office, you go and celebrate. And a rubbish day at the office? Go and drown your sorrows.
So many people within the media have been saying that it was ‘unacceptable’, and that these footballers should be setting an example. I feel like this would be a perfectly acceptable response. However, all we’ve seen are a few pictures of Wayne Rooney looking slightly worse for wear, and a report that he was accompanied by 10 of his teammates. Nothing any more or less incriminating than you’d find on The Tab’s ‘Clubbers of the Week’ on a regular basis.
Speaking with my dad about this, who knows footballers from a former generation harked home how ridiculous the whole debacle was, talking of times when it wasn’t unusual to see players enjoying a post-match pint in the pub with fans. Even high level managers have spoken out in support of the players. Ian Holloway has said that ‘everyone likes a drink’ – perhaps not every one, but still a more than valid point. The loveable rogue of Premier League managers, Jurgen Klopp, has come out saying that whatever happened can’t have been that serious.
But Klopp also made another valid and important point about former legends of the games. At a press conference he acknowledged that the current generation of footballers is amongst the most professional we have ever seen. When comparing their conduct against former generations, who in the words of Klopp ‘drank like devils and smoked like crazy’, it’s easy to agree with him. Nowadays, a player caught having a cigarette would be lucky to see themselves not dropped from a match day squad.
Despite the validity of Klopp’s point, it also holds a sombre note of profoundness when looking back to some of those legends of previous generations, who he acknowledged were all great players despite their vices. When Paul Gascoigne checked himself into a ‘drying-out’ clinic in 1998, it wasn’t a surprising event. Alcoholism was nothing new in football, with many high profile players such as George Best and Jimmy Greaves having well publicised battles against their addictions. This was often put down to the notion of handing impressionable young men lots of cash and not a lot to do with it. Whilst being a professional footballer does come with daily training, it’s not the classic 9-5 that so many of the rest of us know. It’s difficult to understand when the shift from Gazza’s dentist chair antics to Balotelli’s indoor firework display occurred; but, at least from a media point of view, they both had the same cause. A combination of boredom from all this spare time, big bucks and an almost pop-star-esque notoriety was given as the cause of the epidemic alcoholism amongst footballers. Managers’ used to encourage solid performances by promising a solid post-match ‘sesh’, whereas now they encourage with takeaway pizza.
The role the media plays in the whole debate is undoubtedly an interesting one. Back in the 90’s, players’ nocturnal habits were lauded to a certain extent, with one publication joking that Gazza wasn’t even fit to spike the late Best’s drink. With that sort of pressure to live up to, is it any wonder that it was so uncommon for players to succumb? When we compare this sort of media coverage to what we see now, which describes players as ‘shamed’, we can see that there has been a clear shift in the way the drinking of footballers is viewed. One notable point in this change must undoubtedly be the death of George Best, 11 years ago of multiple organ failure caused, in short, by complications from a liver transplant. Although this was an undoubtedly tragic event which shook the footballing world, it’s hard to believe it was the point that tipped the media to portray boozy antics in a complete reverse manner to how they had before.
It’s hard to believe that there is such controversy existing around the recent actions of the England team, that it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the history of alcoholism in football. If the whole debacle had been shown in such a light, a light that displayed a degree of concern for their behaviour, I would more understand why it was something for the public to be concerned about. As it stands at the moment, it merely feels like something that has been built up to actually provide something vaguely newsworthy around the England team. And let’s be honest, it hasn’t really succeeded with that either.