Mark Palmer

The ugly game

Sorry, but the middle-class snobs are right

The ugly game
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What a terrific summer of sport it’s been: a wonderful Wimbledon, a rollicking Royal Ascot, an absorbing Ashes series that still has the best part of two Tests to go. And now along comes football, barging its way on to the back pages, shoving the other sports aside, sniggering all the way to the bank.

Every August, the ‘beautiful game’ reasserts itself as the playground bully. Football is the most popular sport in this country — and the nastiest. It has become a cesspit of greed, debauchery and racism, especially in Britain. It is crude and overbearing and has all the subtlety of a disco at Holy Communion.

I feel bad about this because I love football. It was the only thing at which I was reasonably good at school; a photo of me interviewing Bobby Charlton in the 1980s has pride of place at home and I even wrote a non-bestseller about the 1998 World Cup.

I spent decades defending football from those who thought the players were awful and their fans worse. I put that attitude down to snobbery; disdain for the simple pleasures of the working man.

Now I’ve given up. Football is rotten and there’s no point denying it any more. The penny dropped on seeing the footage of Souleymane Sylla, a black Frenchman on his way home from work in Paris, being pushed off a train by snarling Chelsea fans fuelled by drink and hate. The news played it over and over again after the men’s trial last month; it looked worse with each viewing.

Then Frankfurt and Leeds fans attacked each other on the pitch after what was meant to be a ‘friendly’ between the two sides, just before the Special One, Chelsea manager José Mourinho, called the Real Madrid manager Rafa Benitez a fatty and recommended that Mrs Benitez holds off on the sugar in her hubby’s coffee.

Pre-season, they call it, which is another way of admitting that football is pretty much an all-year affair. Long gone are the days when Denis Compton could open for Middlesex and England in the summer and play on the wing for Arsenal in winter.

Most of the big clubs head off for a lucrative tour of America or the Far East in June, a fundraising exercise to help pay the likes of Liverpool’s Mario Balotelli £90,000 a week to sulk on the pitch and discharge his nostrils of phlegm when he leaves it. Or contribute to Raheem Sterling’s £160,000 a week at Manchester City — which should at least keep the 20-year-old nicely supplied with balloons and gas canisters for any future ‘hippy crack’ sessions.

Mind you, Sterling does still seem keen enough to kick a ball around — unlike Shaun Wright-Phillips, who picked up £60,000 a week for doing precisely nothing at QPR after refusing to go out on loan. And we get cross about benefit cheats.

Don’t believe all the guff about how our league is the best in the world. The players are always quick to say that — so would you be if that sort of money was dropping into your pension pot. Last season’s Premiership was a damp squib compared with Spain’s La Liga, and the technical ability of the teams in Germany’s Bundesliga is just as high as ours. Football in England is like the property market in London — inflated and almost entirely dominated by foreigners.

It’s not as if the national side benefits from the migration. At least in the old days we used to exit World Cups on penalties in the quarters (or even the semis in 1990); now the lads are on the plane home after the group stage. ‘Gutted’, of course, as they head off for Dubai and Barbados.

It’s an unedifying spectacle from top to bottom — but mostly at the top, where the big cheese, Sepp Blatter, has been shown a string of red cards but still refuses to leave the field; where Gordon Taylor, the 70-year-old boss of the footballers’ union (whose pay and benefits package is almost £3.4 million a year), calls for a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to gambling among footballers and then chalks up debts of his own of £100,000; and where the Arsenal and Chelsea managers fail to shake hands at the end of Sunday’s Charity Shield, a match ostensibly to raise money for good causes.

Sorry, Gary, but I’m just not feeling the love for the beautiful game any more.