Here we are now, entertain us. Or rather, for the time being, subsidise us. Shepherd us. Enlighten us. At least until we no longer feel stupid and contagious, anyway.
There is something curiously paradoxical about the man on the street’s relationship with the modern-day elite-level footballer. When we’re not deifying them, we love to loathe them and their well-upholstered wallets, yet at once demand of them to be performers, benefactors and moral compasses. It is why much of the media magnifies and scrutinises the every move of Raheem Sterling, or Wayne Rooney, or virtually anyone to have ever donned the white of England, embroidering the truth so that at the end of the day, we can slouch in our armchairs, utter that same trite sentiment that ‘the game has gone’, and reel off a lorry-load of ‘back in my day’-isms.
It feels as if this has been crystallised in the last week, specifically in light of British health secretary Matt Hancock’s plea for Premier League players to “take a pay cut and play their part,” and Hancock’s Conservative colleague Julian Knight accusing football of existing in a “moral vacuum.” Coronavirus is as yet unrelenting. People are continuing to lose their lives or their jobs. With that in mind, let’s divert attention to why Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne or Paul Pogba haven’t done the honourable thing and relinquished even a fraction of their exorbitant salaries.
Perhaps this simply remains the prism through which football is viewed, still seen by some as little more than a crude proletarian ceremony, played for working-class commoners by gentrified commoners. Yet it would be remiss to say that Hancock, at least at surface level, would not appear to have a point.
Even only in the sphere of English football, the pandemic has shattered non-league Barnet who, without the influx of matchday revenue to stay afloat, have placed all non-playing staff on notice of redundancy. Burnley have warned they risk losing up to an eye-watering £50 million if the Premier League season is truncated. Championship outfit Birmingham City, themselves saddled with crippling debts even before all of this, have asked players earning more than £6,000 per week to take a 50 per cent pay cut for the next four months.
Meanwhile, across Europe, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund head the lengthy list of Bundesliga clubs to have agreed that their players take a financial hit. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid staff will forego 70 per cent of their earnings, while the Juventus squad, along with manager Maurizio Sarri, have agreed to have their income frozen for four months. The rest of the continent is leading the way. Is Hancock so wrong to expect the Premier League to follow suit?
The answer, of course, is no. Rather, the issue with this overly crass and shallow notion, and what made Hancock appear to perpetuate the stereotype that all footballers are rapacious mercenaries, is threefold.
Firstly, he singled them out. He could simultaneously have pleaded to the good nature of the hedge funders, of the City bankers, of the chief executives of multi-national corporations. He could have pondered why a multi-billionaire in Richard Branson felt compelled to ask for a government bailout to Virgin Atlantic, or why another in Philip Green is hoping for taxpayer support to keep Arcadia on its feet.
He could have berated Tottenham owner Joe Lewis, whose reported net worth exceeds £4 billion, or chairman Daniel Levy, who pocketed £7 million last year (though has taken a 20 per cent pay cut), after Spurs furloughed 550 non-playing staff members on the same day that their operating profit for the financial year ending June 2019 was announced as a record £172.7 million. He could even have name-checked other British sportsmen like Lewis Hamilton and Anthony Joshua, both of whom featured in the top 20 of Forbes’ highest-paid athletes in 2019, unlike any Premier League footballer. Instead, he played to the gallery.
Secondly, to place Premier League footballers so harshly, so solely under the microscope and paint them as the villains of the piece is to disregard the endless amount of good they do beyond the pitch. Look no further than the recent phone calls from Michael Keane and Mason Holgate to elderly, vulnerable Evertonians as prime examples of the invaluable work Everton in the Community undertakes, as many other clubs’ charities do on a regular basis.
Elsewhere, Juan Mata is one of four top-flight players to pledge a percentage of his wage to the foundation he set up in 2017, Common Goal. So too does Jürgen Klopp. Jermain Defoe shed tears when ‘best mate’ Bradley Lowery tragically passed away from neuroblastoma in 2017 at the age of six. Harry Kane invited a young Tottenham fan suffering from Down’s Syndrome and subjected to online abuse to be Spurs’ mascot at their final-day clash with Everton last season. These acts of kindness are just the tip of the iceberg, a few leading examples of how a sport greatly misconstrued can still cause positive change in the wider world.
Finally, risible as this may seem considering the average salary for a Premier League player is £61,024 a week, not every top-tier footballer may deem much of their pay packet expendable. They might enjoy the luxury of the living off the breadline unlike many further down English football’s food chain, but you don’t need business acumen to kick a ball around for a living. Some will not be shrewd investors; hence why 40 per cent of them reportedly encounter financial woes either during or after their professional careers.
It all adds up. The taxes. The agents’ fees. The bills. The mortgages. The medical expenses. The addictions and vices that some may harbour and surreptitiously conceal from public view. The bare necessities of life to support not only themselves but their partner, children and parents in some cases. In short, not all of them will boast as much disposable income as you, or certainly Hancock, would believe.
Not before time, he may finally soon get his way. The Premier League’s statement on Friday addressed this exact issue among others, saying that clubs will now be asked to encourage players to take wage cuts of 30 per cent until this ungodly crisis reaches its climax. Which, certainly in theory and most probably in practice, appears a sensible compromise, even if, via a PFA statement on Saturday evening, certain quarters have understandable reservations about the proposal. The idea might have legs, but the implementation looks inevitable to run and run.
For Hancock is also right; footballers should play their part. Of course they should. We all should. Yet the implication in all of this that they have not been doing so until now could hardly be further from the truth. There is still an awful lot to warm your heart in football; you need only look deeper than its veneer of greed and self-interest to unearth it.