It seems slightly surreal to be writing an article like this, after what on the face of it seemed like one of the greatest seasons ever in the English game. A true three horse race up until April for the domestic title, Englands top four teams being the four favourites to win the European Cup – the final being the first ever to be contested by two English teams, the top two in the country. The domestic Cups won in fairytale fashion, first by a Spurs team beating their recently more successful local rivals along the way in Arsenal and Chelsea to win the League Cup, then Harry Redknapp creating a bit of FA Cup romance by taking unfancied Portsmouth all the way.
The league title and European Cup were both sealed with the left foot of the most decorated player in the history of the English game, in his record equalling and record setting appearance for the only club he’s played for in his 17 year career. A season for the purists, and for those who like to think football not only rewards the good guys but punishes the villains, there was plenty for them to chuckle about in the closing minutes of the season – Drogba being sent off, and Ronaldo, Terry and Anelka all missing penalties in the shoot out of the European Cup final.
So how did a season that was packed with so many highlights for any football purist get followed by a summer full of headlines that show todays top players as greedy, ruthless, despicable mercenaries?
Whether it’s the games “top dog” Blatter accusing the European Champions of dallying in slave trade by dishing out a paltry £120k a week, whether it’s Ronaldo’s public declaration of commitment, followed by a public non-commital, followed by a public agreement that he is a slave, whether it’s Lampard turning down a four year contract worth £140k a week because he wants, apparently, “more security for his future”, whether it’s Adebayor publicly stating he wants to stay then an hour later changing his mind, whether it’s Hleb whining that he hates London because he finds everything so intrusive, all the while angling for a move to the goldfish bowl of Barcelona – it’s enough to make fans of the top three clubs, previously so fevered in competition with each other, unite in dismay.
The baffling thing as a fan of just 27 years old is, that this isn’t even a generation thing. The players mentioned above spale in comparison to legends that still play the game – Scholes, Giggs, Maldini, Raul, for example. Can you even imagine one of todays prima donnas doing a “Bergkamp” and travelling by road or rail to play an away European game because they had a HUMAN fear of flying? Everyday professionals who started playing because they loved the game, and were fortunate to get caught in the financial whirlwind of the last 12 years. Fortunate, and aware of the fact.
How many of today’s players under the age of 24/25 are playing for the love of the game? Play with a natural desire to create on the ball, a freedom of expression? That looseness, the individuality that sets them apart from the system because they will break from a rigid system and do something unexpected? Play with their heart and not their mind? At Old Trafford I think we have two, Rooney and Anderson – others in world football can be counted almost on one hand. Fabregas (who I openly state regularly I think is incredibly over-rated, but I’ll admit plays with all the above criteria), Messi, Aguero..
11 years ago Eric Cantona fell out of love with the game and simply retired to pursue other passions. Winston Bogarde, who played football for Ajax and Barcelona, signed a mega-money deal for Chelsea and wasted away. Ronaldinho, a player who seems to have lost any romantic connection he once felt for the game, is being touted around for a last big pay packet at a club desperate for shirt sales regardless of the sorry state he’s in – footballs equivalent of a dog that has long since seen his day. And Frank Lampard is looking for a contract to guarantee him £140k at the age of 35 despite having a career that has been no better than that of, say, “Tricky” Trevor Francis, a player well loved in the game but with all due respect, never a legend.
This is football, kid, but it’s “Football 2008 (sponsored by Sky)”.
There’s a question that lingers, however.. is there any place in the modern game for the old fashioned fan?