I was doing the ironing this evening. No, don’t laugh. And whilst I iron, I usually listen to the radio. Five Live Drive is an excellent digest of the day’s events, co-hosted by one of radio’s finest voices, Peter Allen. This man is a Spurs fan. And he was thrilled when we beat Barcelona in the Champions League last year. That’s how much of a chap he is.
Given Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon yesterday, the success of the British Lions against the Wallabies, and Chris Froome taking the lead in the Tour de France, added to various other sporting triumphs during the course of the past 12 months, Five Live Drive held a mini debate about whether this is in fact, with the exception of football, a golden age for British sport. Amongst the reasons cited for the cavalcade of success were coaching and funding. And this got me thinking. What, exactly, is the problem with football? Why are the home nations, particularly England, epically failing at international level?
And the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the answer lies with money. Other sportsmen are well paid – indeed Andy Murray’s win in SW19 is being estimated as being worth as much as £60 Million to him. But what seems to drive Murray is the lure of the title. Sky have ploughed millions into their cycling team to assemble a fearsome array of talent that for two years running have taken on all-comers in the Tour. Again, the cyclists are probably getting fairly well paid. But is money their driving force? What makes golfers like U.S. Open champion Justin Rose get out of bed in the morning?
England’s cricketers have gone from being a laughing stock 20 years ago to fierce competitors strongly managed. And it could be in our national summer game that the answer to football’s problems lie, if only the game were not only strong enough, but brave enough to adopt it. With the re-organisation of English cricket in the mid-1990s, when the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) replaced the MCC as those charged with running the sport, the implementation of central contracts meant that players were no longer turning up to play for England already worn to a pulp. Now the game’s ruling body were paying the pipers and calling the tune. Would the Football Association ever be brave enough to offer players central contracts?
There are a number of issues that makes this problematic. The FA would need to pay the players the ‘market rate’ – for international standard players, this will run to millions of pounds per head multiplied by a 23 man squad. If they couldn’t afford this – and a cursory search of the internet only gives financial data for the year ending 31 December 2008, when a turnover of £261.8 million resulted in an operating profit of £16.6 million and a loss before tax of £15.3 million – how many players would give up the lure of several million pounds per year from a club, even if it resulted in them being ineligible to play for England? Another possibility could be a player being retained on a central contract, and released to his club, as the England cricket team are. But let’s be honest, no football club is going to invest in a player who would be under the direct control of the FA and possibly unavailable if the FA considered the player needed a rest.
Thus, we are unlikely ever to see a central contract system implemented in English football. So how do we motivate the players to give their all for the national team? We could start by paying them less at club level, thus making them hungrier for glory. Because that’s the ultimate issue. When even average players are being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, what motivates them? Do they hunger for success at club level? Do they dream of playing for England? Maybe. But from my perspective, they don’t seem to want it. Yes, the medals are lovely. They look great on the CV. But they don’t seem hungry. They don’t seem to care. And that might be because from a very early age they’re surrounded by agents whose abiding concern is to get the best rate for their client, thus ensuring they get as big a slice of the cake for themselves as possible. Basically, they’re pimps. And their ‘clients’ are racking up the pounds, the euros, the dollars, spending them on flash cars, big houses, wasting their money on ridiculous things because they can. And waste it they do. Earlier this year, the BBC Radio 4 series ‘You & Yours’ broadcast an extraordinary programme on the state of players’ finances, including the claim by the sporting charity XPro that as many as three in five Premier League footballers face bankruptcy within five years of retiring from the game (read more here).
So yes, maybe a salary cap might be a start. But it would have to be implemented unilaterally. Not just here, but worldwide. And perhaps if players were earning sums that were closer to the five figure salary that the average man/woman in the street earns, rather than a weekly sum akin to a banker’s bonus, supporters could start relating to the players once more. The players might regard playing for England as rather more than a chore, tinged with fear of abuse. And it’s all cause and effect you know. Fans abuse players because of the astronomical sums they earn, players become paralysed with fear, perform poorly, fail at tournaments – you know the rest.
Glory is defined as ‘ high renown or honour won by notable achievements’. Sport is cyclical. At the moment, cycling, tennis and rugby are the sports that are perceived as being the ‘glory’ games. Unfortunately it’s an epithet that we’re not likely to be attaching to our national game for the foreseeable future. Power might corrupt, but in football, money corrupts absolutely.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67.