War, poppies and footballers: sacrifice in the age of pampering
It’s the time of year we are reminded that modern footballers couldn’t hack it in a war
It’s one of the endlessly implied questions of the modern age, isn’t it: would footballers die bravely for us? Photograpg: Getty/Ross Kinnaird
If sport is war by other means, football is always getting found out on the frontline. Even as the annual poppy row rumbles on – this year’s incarnation concerning Fifa’s ban on shirt poppies for England v Scotland on Friday – José Mourinho is presenting white feathers to two of his defenders. Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw have fallen short in a variety of martial metaphors: they haven’t put their bodies on the line, they haven’t played “at any cost”, they are cowards by another name. The Manchester United manager will have enjoyed the timing of his gesture. As a long-term resident of the Premier League, Mourinho will be finely attuned to the annual poppy row, its implications and its possibilities for exploitation.
It’s one of the endlessly implied questions of the modern age, isn’t it: would footballers die bravely for us? If it came to it, would they lay down their lives for club and country like bally heroes? And more than that: would they thank us for the opportunity to do so? Could they have scored on a wet Christmas Day away to the Germans in no man’s land? The answer, always, is an infuriated NO. No, they wouldn’t and no they couldn’t, because they may have all the money and all the cars and all the women but they haven’t got the right stuff any more. Modern footballers couldn’t hack it in a war. Quite why they’d need to is never made clear. I mean, they play for Manchester City or Chelsea in 2016 – why on earth does anyone give a shit about how they’d have taken a lungful of mustard gas? I think the traditional counter-argument is that there is a principle of bravery and commitment here but there really isn’t. If you honestly think there is any continuum between war and Super Sunday, you’ve terminally invalided yourself out of the argument.
Alarm bells should ring all the louder when you consider those making these sort of accusations the loudest are always talk-radio DJs or angry newspaper columnists – possibly earth’s worst potential soldiers, and I speak advisedly. Seriously, would you want Richard Littlejohn in a foxhole with you?
It’s just more woolly “debate” about sacrifice in the age of pampering. I don’t know if it is all predicated on some hilariously misplaced idea of masculinity from which my gender mercifully insulates me. Perhaps this is the jealous man equivalent of those anonymous female Daily Mail readers who leave comments under beach photos of Heidi Klum, in which they sniff that she’s a bit straight-up-and-down and their bloke wouldn’t look twice. Top-flight footballers may look like bronze sculptures (bastards) but their detractors are still better than them where it counts.
What I do know is that no social group is discussed in these terms more than footballers, who are forever being compared unfavourably with generations past who were conscripted into world wars. No profession doesn’t know it’s born like footballers don’t know they’re born. You never hear people remarking that today’s bankers wouldn’t have lasted two minutes if they were called up. In terms of the numbers, this is of far greater relevance. There are only around 600 players in the Premier League, which isn’t even a WW1 battalion. How about people who work for John Lewis? There are almost 100,000 of those. Would they be good at fighting for Queen and country? Inquiring minds want to know.
The only other version of this argument is when a certain type of person looks askance at some section of the working class of which they disapprove and floats the idea of bringing back national service. You’ll note the common denominator with football is the working-class bit: a weirdly romanticised sense that, whether they want it or not, a certain type of rather ordinary person benefits from a certain type of discipline, which is unfortunately no longer forced upon them. Needless to say, this is a view shared by renowned plonker Alan Partridge, who observes approvingly of his mate Michael’s military service: “Well there you go. They taught you a trade. Minor repairs.” “Aye,” Michael replies darkly. “That and killing.”
Of course footballers have to look exercised about some poppy-related issue every year, because they have spent much of the past 11 months being reminded of their moral failings in relation to generations of soldiers past, and they can see very well this would be yet another stick with which to beat them if they didn’t. It’s just easier to submit. If they play for England, they may well have had an away fixture in continental Europe that took them within a 100-mile radius of a war memorial or former concentration camp (as duly happened with a cancelled England squad visit to Thiepval, near the Somme, during Euro 2016). If they failed to visit that war memorial or concentration camp, or wore a tracksuit to it, or were seen smiling even momentarily anywhere near it, then that will have been seized on to throw them into unsympathetic relief against the sacrifice of those who were slaughtered or gassed there. Remember, kids: it’s the footballers who are appalling, not the people who make these comparisons.
The war obsession is capable of even more bizarrely inappropriate appearances. When Adam Johnson was convicted earlier this year, I read an article that advised: “Spool back 100 years, to 1916, and footballers of Johnson’s age were dying by the score at the Battle of the Somme.” What in the name of sanity has that got to do with the price of rice? Why on earth is the Somme being brought into a child sexual grooming case? If the comparison is insisted on, I have eye-opening news: statistically, there would have been a few deviants going over the top at the Somme too. I’m afraid proximity to war isn’t a moral get-out-of-jail-free card.
Yet on it goes, a fatuous war on footballers marshalled by people too pampered to have to even think their own opinions through. I couldn’t be happier to be a conscientious objector, and very much hope you are with me.