Opinion: Soccer heroes are too easily made villains

Last week an international footballer leapt into the crowd and battered a fan in a ferocious assault.

The story was covered by sports writers and broadcasters, but surprisingly rated barely a word in the main news or feature pages. Surprising, that is, until you realise that the player involved performed under the ‘gentlemen’s code’ of rugby, rather than of association football.

The brutal antics of Irish forward Trevor Brennan and the tabloid newshounds who didn’t bark was just the latest reminder that UK soccer stars live under a media spotlight of an intensity unknown to other sports people.

Soccer stars’ PROs – and I dec­lare a professional interest here – often have to leap into damage limitation and litigation mode to curb the excessive tabloid appetites for fantasising about their clients’ alleged wrongdoing. But Brennan appeared to need no such media management to keep him off the front pages.

To push the point home, at around the same time young Premiership footballer Glen Johnson (Portsmouth) and a Millwall player were stopped at a DIY store and accused of switching price labels on a toilet seat. This story made front pages.

The current print media attitude to soccer stars demonstrates, I believe, a manically schizophrenic trait. The editors agree that the biggest sales driver (aside from free DVDs, wallcharts, book offers, etc) is football. And yet the very stars whose exploits lift the hearts of millions, whose images sell billions of pounds worth of consumer goods, are regularly cast as villains on the front pages.

There is a torrent of (often untrue) stories of excessive drinking, brawling and lavish spending of soccer players.

Indeed, a common theme here is money, suggesting that one driver must be an element of envy. This is compounded   by the vestiges of snobbery and classism that decree that rugby is the gentlemen’s game.

The explosion of money in football’s Premiership has created a Hollywood-style plutocracy. Yet while US PROs find a largely receptive media that laud their clients’ achievements, their British counterparts too often find their clients vilified.

Meanwhile, rugby players are regarded as the impoverished aristocracy of the sporting world. Their yobbery is attributed to club camaraderie and the derring-do male rites of passage handed down from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

I’m not asking you to spare a tear for top footballers. But it is worth pausing to reflect that in an age of televised, branded soccer stars, the media rarely provides a home fit for its heroes.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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