Why Footballers Deserve to Behave Like Children

The infantilising mechanics of elite football's production line have a lot to answer for.
14 February 2020, 11:50am
baby playing football

FIFA-backed, slave-built stadiums in the Middle East. Police batons ripping the scalps off poor northern ginger boys. Crestfallen "crisis clubs" and the Deloitte Money League. The links between headers and former-pro dementia. Deregulated Thatcherite neoliberalism drawing us inexorably towards the flaming Sauron's eye of a breakaway European Super League. Lower tier winding-up orders, fatal derby feuds, sports-washing, Pele's depression pills, petrodollars and PremFlix.

At any given point, in any given season, it only takes a matter of minutes to formulate this kind of Imperfect List of footballing furores, a task made even easier this week by a wide-ranging and at times eye-bursting investigation into hyper-capitalist elite club collusion carried out by the Independent's Miguel Delaney. It's an impressive example of long-form sports journalism that is difficult to read and must have been even harder to write; spend too much time with your head stuck in these toxic subplots and they start to gang up on you, each one turning into a monster under the bed, a rat living at the back of your brain gnawing away at the gantry cables.

The game feels particularly rife with rats right now, at a point in history when perhaps it'd pay for football to chill a little, to remember every now and then its purpose and relative lack of importance.

Which isn't to say that national and player associations shouldn't care about ex-pros, or that police brutality is justified, or that dirty money, human trafficking and the death of community institutions aren't important issues. Clearly, they are hugely important to the future of the sport, but none of them are what made the world fall in love with it in the first place – and if the sport is worth protecting, it's worth remembering why. At those times when it feels as though an elemental sense of play has gone missing from football, that the magic is waning, it can be therapeutic to remind yourself that for all the mind-slammer cash-violence, geopolitics and tribal froth, the game invariably begins as a laugh in the playground, a childhood vessel for dreaming.

There's been a lot of talk this week about immaturity in football. After a fractious Premier League fixture at Bramall Lane on Sunday, in which players, staff and officials clashed frequently, Bournemouth's Dan Gosling came out firing, accusing referee Jon Moss of being "very disrespectful" for having the temerity to point out that his side are engaged in a relegation battle.

"The officials talk about respect at the start of the season, and there was zero respect from Jon Moss on Sunday," whined Gosling. "I thought he was a disgrace. The comments that he made, especially to me and one other player – talking about the relegation zone and 'you're still in the relegation zone', 'you're having one', 'your team's having one' and this and that – it was very, very disrespectful. I think he should come out and apologise, because I thought he was a disgrace."

Initially, the optics on this one aren't great. Having a tantrum at a ref because he shot you and your mate a few "sarky comments" on the pitch is many things: petty, yes; pathetic, most definitely. Most of all, though, it's just a bit silly, and for all those left so outraged by the incident they've felt compelled to write in to website letter pages, call up TalkSPORT or vent on Twitter, it is in its own way a reassuring reminder that football remains at heart a child's game, a context that renders Gosling's reaction entirely appropriate. Growing up, everyone laughed at that one kid at school who had all the gear – box-fresh white Predators, sweatbands, brand new Man U kit – but no idea, a spoilt brat who'd run off crying to his dad whenever he didn't make the starting XI.

In our timeline, the infantilising mechanics of elite football's production line froze that boy forever as Dan Gosling. In another, parallel dimension, he matured normally, and became Daniel Goose.

I once found myself having dinner with a Premier League player and current Football League boss, and encountered this maturity-stunting effect in person. The pro, who would have been about 33 at the time, was there with an entourage: agent, biographer, PA and publisher. We talked for two hours about the prospect of him writing for a title I was connected with, and though he was perfectly polite it was impossible to ignore the impression that he seemed to be caught in a kind of time-warp, that all of his references were things I'd discussed and thought were unsurpassably clever in my mid teens: South Park, Nietzsche, Family Guy, Morrissey.

Having been funnelled through the academy system from such a young age, it gave me a new perspective on professional footballers, the vast majority of whom are in many senses denied an adolescence, those mid-to-late teenage years when the mind is permitted to wander, interrogate and mature in the balm of its own formative experiences and conclusions.

The guy wasn't an idiot – quite the opposite, in fact – he was just picking up a thread 15 years later than people tend to when they're not enmeshed in the intensive daily training regimens and laser-guided tuition footballers must overcome if they're ever going to emerge and abide at the top levels of the game. It was a bit like having dinner with a 33-year-old Adrian Mole, a man starting to enjoy the places his mind could lead him to, hitching up his trouser legs so everyone can see his red socks.

When it comes to players and their immaturity – something Neymar was also harangued for this week in the New York Times – you can basically take it one of two ways.

Either you're of the opinion that footballers are essentially adolescents trapped in the bodies of adults and admit the folly of holding them aloft as role models, social standard bearers, local icons and all the rest, because why should any adolescent – even a stunted one – be expected to shoulder that kind of burden? The other view is that the privileges these young men enjoy – of being rewarded with millions of pounds to play a boy's game as the rest of us are shunted headlong through merciless adulthood – confer on them the responsibility to be bigger, to elevate themselves, somehow, above and beyond the rest of us, even though the amount of time they have to devote to anything besides sustaining their own optimum athletic condition must be minimal.

The world right now is a heavy, heavy place. When that weight threatens to collapse even its most cherished form of communal fantasy and escape, perhaps it'd be better to cut footballers some slack, to laugh rather than scold when the media-trained mask slips and the hyper-competitive little boy who still lives inside them comes whining and moaning to the fore. Football is at its best when it reduces men to dreamers and cynics to kids. In the face of all those arrayed forces seeking to suck the joy from the game, we should forgive Neymar for his self-indulgence and Gosling for his fit of pique – and in the shadow of the asteroids, let football be a playground.

@hydallcodeen / @danxdraws