Picture the scene: Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud sit waiting in a well-appointed classroom somewhere within London Colney. Their hair is all identikit-spiffy. They banter about something that probably isn't funny at all; the likelihood is it would focus on whether Olivier's new tattoo is 'a mad one' or not.
In walks the teacher. They are here for media training. If they wish to receive their 'I'm a media learner' badge, and commensurate £15,000 performance bonus, they must complete this course.
'Right,' begins the teacher, 'today's lesson is about what you say to the press afterwards if you scored.' 'You don't ever score mate,' says Jack to Olivier, who flashes an aloof French look to the heavens. Aaron assures him it's just banter, then puts his hand up. 'Miss, do you say, "obviously it's always nice to score but at the end of the day all that matters is we got the three points and I do whatever I can to help the team"?' Jack waves a wanker sign under Aaron's face. 'Very good. Now Jack – what about if Arsenal haven't won the game, but you scored?' Jack takes a picture of himself to alert his Instagram followers to his whereabouts, then says, 'Don't really give a shit do I, I've got a contest running with Welbz where whoever scores most over the season gets to pick ends on the roast when we next go out.'
By the end of the class, Jack has learnt the error of his ways. They emerge like Stepford Wives from the London Colney media centre. They go to get new tattoos.
Now picture the scene: instead of Jack, Aaron and Olivier, it's Pierre van Hooijdonk, Roy Keane and Paolo di Canio waiting for class to begin. In walks the teacher, but as she passes Roy's desk, he is put in mind of a tackle she may or may not have made on him some years earlier. 'I'm not waiting around to find out', he says loudly to the silent classroom, then proceeds to shout, 'Did you enjoy that foul on me did ya' while stamping his entire weight through her knee, to an audible shriek. The air, in Di Canio's mind, turns red. He spies an open window, behind which may or may not be a gathering of Lazio fans, and after performing the most emphatic fascist salute at their potential presence, prepares to go eye-to-eye with the bubbling tar-pit of Keane's face. Suddenly, whooping and leaping about like a demented gibbon, in launches Martin Keown. Van Hooijdonk, having surveyed all of this dispassionately and decided he is not a slave, has left the room and is now in a taxi bound for Dover to catch the next ferry to Rotterdam.
And that, altogether, is why football had a certain je ne sais quoi in the '90s that I miss.
I'm not an idiot. There's not much to look fondly upon when you see some guy basically trying to remove Pele's leg from the hip, and the referee with the stiff back and the moustache does that 'play on chaps' gesture, and then the next guy tries to remove Pele's small intestine, at which point the referee allows a free kick.
But is it better now? Football is neutralising itself. Obviously it's Premier League football – it remains a bloody wonderful thing, one of life's treats – but I'm getting a little sick of the headfuck that occurs when one has to ask, 'was that a foul?' I mean obviously it wasn't a foul, but 'was it a foul?' The '90s seemed to provide a brief, perfect sweetspot between an overhaul of the rules to protect what was most appealing about the game on the one hand, and a certain untrammelled rawness on the other. Guys with attitudes felt like it was a good fit for them, and they behaved according to those attitudes. Witness how unwilling some clubs are to have anything to do with Mario Balotelli because, whatever else he might offer, he'll definitely bring 'brand jeopardy'. Like all those legions of fans in Malaysia only want to see the most neutral, corporate 'fun' come over the satellite from the in-house TV channel. And maybe they do. Either way, fuck it.
I was 12 when Eminem first bounced on to my MTV screen. I was used to silly songs – the Bloodhound Gang's Bad Touch and Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls were both hits of the day – and seeing as it was a white rapper, in my limited experience that meant it was silly. In the end he became the only solo superstar of my life up to this point who I felt popular culture had produced for me. I've liked a lot of other ones, but they always felt to varying degrees like they were made for someone else.
There was no existing license at all for mainstream superstars to behave as he did. The first 10 tracks of the NOW! compilation when he arrived (no great arbiter of taste I realise, but with Britpop withered away this was basically what was around at the time, especially for a 12-year old) starts with Britney Spears, ends with Sixpence None The Richer, and has a selection of ex-Spice Girls, Boyzoners and Take Thatties in between. And Eiffel 65. Then suddenly it was Meet Eddie, who was about to rob a liquor store, and Meet Grady, who was about to murder his wife and her lover. Suddenly the vengeful, issue-ridden and razor-sharp whiteboy's voice was all you could hear. And Dre's beats. I loved the cultural literacy it had; I liked some other hip-hop back then but it was coming to me from a different world, whereas this was a world of sticking knives into earnest newsreaders and Christina Aguilera and the soft turn-of-the-century Abercrombyism of everything, and I got that.
It made me uncomfortable, too. I didn't know what to make of the entire track of a guy getting head off two other guys on The Marshall Mathers LP; I was transfixed by the heat of the psychotic murder-track on the same album, simply called Kim. Words were getting thrown around that I didn't think I liked, even if at that age your moral compass is somewhat absent.
But here's the thing: Roy Keane did not give a fuck what you thought about how he was. Nor Di Canio, nor Eminem. You feel like they gave you enough space to respect their commitment to the game – and you couldn't say any of those three ever gave it half-hearted – and after that, your opinions were moot. It's not like everyone now has suddenly started caring, whereas before they didn't. It's just that now, from every angle, the tone is always this hellish corporate softly-softly, like we're all best buds here. And then via some mishap the mask slips, Twitter goes into outcry about how you actually don't care, and there will be some swift apologies and brand crisis-management so that the piggish, sickly status quo can be reassumed. Ladies and gentleman: the 21st century is starting to suck major balls. I miss the Eminem Show.
The Hand Of History – Di Canio catches the ball, December 2000
Would the real Paolo di Canio please stand up? Answers on a postcard regarding this complex collection of people: one of them a snorting, whites-of-the-eyes fascist saluter; another an incoherent, frequently tactically-inept manager; the next a player who shows glimpses of true genius; still another a manager getting a side promoted and offering his own money to keep its loan players and working 'into the night' with a team of volunteers to clear snow off its pitch; and yet another who, upon spotting Everton 'keeper Paul Gerrard (another name bound forever to your subconscious) now stricken on the edge of the box, caught the incoming cross, waving for play to stop.
Two things. Number one: given how much injury-faking there is these days, it wouldn't happen. And number two: the only legit conclusion you can make on Paolo di Canio is that he's many things. What is most monstrous about the present way of popular perception is the desire to say 'he/she is either this or is not this'. Know who is this/not this with no crossover? Robots. Programmed entities. That is a weird new direction for the human race to take. It's cool. It'll probably all just blow over when Twitter dies.
A Little Cultural Context
I know what you've wanted from the moment I mentioned it. Your little nose has been twitching for it ever since. Alright, just for you – here, as best as I can manage, are the collected 'good ones' from the three NOW That's What I Call Music! CDs of 1999: Baz Luhrman – Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen). Fatboy Slim – Praise You. Lenny Kravitz – Fly Away. The Cardigans – Erase/Rewind. New Radicals – You Get What You Give. Chemical Brothers – Hey Boy Hey Girl. Blur – Coffee and TV. Bran Van 3000 – Drinking In LA. And last but not least, Spice Girls – Goodbye.
What a time to be alive.