It’s nice to see you on a Sunday like this, as a rare treat, for which you should understand the reasoning behind by now (if not, just look at the start of yesterday’s blog). Anyway, onto this week’s blog - which should hopefully be the second part of a double-header with last week’s if has gone to plan -, and it’s hopefully an interesting one, going along with this week’s announcement of the 16-strong list for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. The variety throughout this unprecedentedly extensive unique for the stunning year of British, and worldwide, sport, in 2016, is totally commendable on the part of the judging panel and various UK sporting governing bodies, representing a wide variety of terrific sporting success this year. But with only two footballers, as representatives of what is by far and away the largest sport, not by participation but by sheer scale of organisation, in this country, on this list, it is left to the footballing hierarchy, and public alike, to ponder why the sport, amongst other majority sports in UK, has faced such a torrid time at the annual awards evening for years on end, other than in a few select examples of success.
These footballers, Jamie Vardy representing the totally unrivalled miracle of sporting achievement in Leicester City’s Premier League title win, and Gareth Bale, on merit of his leading role in Wales’ thrilling run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and his comparatively smaller hand in Real Madrid’s record 11th Champions League title, are in the minority, but in a strange twist of fate, are representing a sport that holds dominance in the media and across our daily lives in the UK. This has been the reality for a number of years now on pan-sporting awards ceremonies, so I suppose the pressing question in response to this telling and altogether freakish fact is; why haven’t footballers been deserving, in the eyes of respective judging panels, of scooping up the prize for their achievements and toils? Why can’t these awards ceremonies stomach the thought of handing their highly respected trophies over to these often over-worked and mentally resilient individuals, who are adored by so many, young and old, across the nation? Finally, have footballers deserved more recognition than they do, in reality, achieve, in terms of these kinds of awards, or is the lack of acknowledgement for their efforts justified by these organisations, which may have a series of motives, further than pure sporting achievement, for failing to select a number of deserving individuals over the years?
Why does any of this matter though? Good question. Personally, I believe in hard work being rewarded with equal rewards, especially if, on top of that hard work, there has been an adversity to overcome along the path. I also believe that this is one of SPOTY’s, and more widely one of this entire nation’s, core beliefs, especially considering the national psyche of supporting the underdog. Now, footballers may not be underdogs in life, especially considering the financial support they receive for at least one appearance on a football pitch per week, but I don’t believe the challenges they face should be viewed any differently just because some of them happen to be millionaires, who can afford to live lives of luxury. They never asked for such staggering fees, they never expected them through their years of practice on the playing fields across from their houses, or through the matches they played for their youth teams. Granted, their agents and parents might’ve had this potential jackpot in their mind when releasing their clients/sons into the (not just physically) dangerous world of football, but the same could be said of Judy Murray, who has built a tennis empire on the success of her two sons, Jamie and Andy, both world number ones in men’s doubles and singles respectively. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of parents who would do anything to profit, financially and otherwise, off their children’s physical talents, so it is not an endemic specific to football. All top-level footballers have fought hard, if not harder, than sportsmen and women in many other fields, as the competition for places is intensified much further in football, also the most valuable sport in this nation, as only the best will do, with only a handful of individuals capable of making the step up from youth grade, to academies, and then the Premier League stage.
Why then, are footballers so uncredited for their roles, not just in the sporting globe, but also in the public eye, with more responsibility and pressure placed upon their shoulders than on any other sportsman or woman around? Broadly speaking, you could blame this issue of distrust, bordering on hatred, in the top national players available to us, and by us I mean Gareth Southgate (congratulations on the appointment this week, boss), on the national media, who will jump upon any bandwagon as soon as it starts rolling. In doing so, they will break the backs of those tramped underneath, who are in the end, the footballers, those same players who we will cheer or berate at the end of the week. This manipulative handle that the wider media cycle has deployed upon the far from stupid, but still gullible, public has certainly changed opinions on those players, who once included the worshipped Bobby Moore, as the first footballer to win SPOTY back in, you guessed it, 1966, and Bobby Charlton, the first football representative to finish on the podium (second in 1958, alongside Nat Lofthouse in third).
Nowadays, instead of gritty, relatable, working-class heroes, they are painted as untrustworthy, cheating, overpaid prima donnas, a large part of which comes from the all-too-easy to target wages they receive for what is portrayed as very little work, but what, in reality, is far more strenuous and seriously tough labour, even if they do have their mansions to go to at the end of a hard day. Money can’t fix serious issues like depression, caused by the weight of the media on a player’s shoulders, so these players need to be treated fairly. Maybe they aren’t the people’s champions anymore, but if one thing is for sure, they are still the people’s representatives. Once they get out on that pitch, you support them. The same can be said about politicians, despite the serious issues some of them project upon society. There just needs to be a little more perspective placed upon these subjects once they are challenged by certain broadcasters.
Maybe it is us, as a public, though, who have voted down footballers, maybe not in the final vote, but in the weeks and months leading up to the announcement of the list, through our constant indecisiveness over the credibility and achievement of each individual suggested. Maybe we just don’t credit footballers fairly enough for what they do for us, not just as a country, but individually, as they open doors for achievement, not only by being part of a thriving industry, but also by funding the government’s coffers, by note of interest covering (roughly) the financial cost of illegal cigarette smuggling into the UK, which totals around £1,500,000,000 in 2016 – and before you suggest anything, I heard this on BBC News the other night. By being part of an industry which honestly nobody can be a fan of, other than worldwide economies and businessmen, they have contributed more to society than any other section of sport. It’s just not widely respected, nor reported, to be that way, though, is it?
My suggestion would be that the public aren’t quite as keen to deliver their vote for such a momentous award to a footballer, as the image of their sport, no matter their achievement, has taken a serious battering, along with, (not) strangely, the implementation of the Premier League, and with it, the largest example of detestable commercialisation on the part of any football league around the world. Seriously, what thoughts are conjured up when someone suggests an athlete, or a swimmer, or even a cyclist, and then a footballer? I think many educated and informed minds would work in the same way here, declaring the first three as commendable sports, at least for British competitors – who definitely wouldn’t take banned substances in order to get a leg up over the rest of the competition, unlike Russian competitors (yeah right mate) – while not exactly having the same sentiment for football.
Well, that’s down to football being over-professionalised (if that’s even a term), while the others remain largely untouched by widespread commercialisation, instead placing more focus on the actual competition. Case in point, the reality for many of our Olympic swimmers, runners and cyclists is that they struggle, amongst competitors from many other popular sports, to actually find the sponsors to support their cause, and with the ruthless sink-or-swim funding system of UK Sport, outside sponsorship, something easily accessible for the football industry, becomes the backbone of these athlete’s livelihoods. This is something football as an industry does take largely for granted now, but it is also something that those at the top of its day-to-day running, for example Richard Scudamore, have worked hard to achieve for the sport, for better or for worse, and it is those that are involved with the start right now that are reaping the rewards.
Possibly, the fault for this tangible exclusion of a number of deserving footballers could lie at the hands of the selectors, the judging panels, selected on an annual basis by the BBC, usually including a vast majority of bigwigs from around the broadcasting giants’ headquarters, with five of the twelve members of the panel this year coming from this particular source. Considering the pivotal and defining role the BBC plays in daily life in the United Kingdom, accentuated as a publically-funded corporation who rely on the government’s backing for their survival, the employees of this historic titan of the market have a responsibility to tread a fine line in their actions, especially in deciding the list for such a prominent award such as SPOTY. The fellow judges selected, either from the fields of sports journalism, sporting governing bodies or competitive sport, at least as former nominees of the award, undoubtedly have to consign themselves to this same tight restraint of opinion, even if, at the end of suggestion for nominees, it is the big cheeses of the BBC who take the final decision. Objectively, they are acting on the part of the public, but more importantly the government, who cannot be seen to support any controversial views if they want to be elected again in what is now scheduled to be three and a half years’ time, with the threat of budget cuts hanging over the head of the BBC if they step out of line with the accepted ideology. It’s not quite as bad as in state-controlled television and media in North Korea or Russia, but it still has to be upheld to a certain degree, so there isn’t anarchy on the streets in response to the lack of government handle.
Football’s lack of presence on the awards night isn’t just restricted to the overall, much-coveted award of Sports Personality of the Year, but also covers the recently introduced Young Sports Personality, and both awards introduced in 1960, the Overseas Sports Personality and Team of the Year Awards, which judging panels decide each of the winners for, no matter the public opinion. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that there has been such a dry spell for footballers in these specific categories, especially in the face of such impressive performances from global superstar Lionel Messi (who has somehow never be acclaimed by the awards) or the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team, who only lost two league matches in the entire calendar year of 2004 - with those being against Manchester United and Liverpool. If you wondering where my example for a footballer deserving of the Young Sports Personality is, I have to admit defeat, as in the 17-year history of the award, there has been two footballers worthy of commendation, Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott in 2002 and 2006 respectively. Honestly, you have to accept that this is an award wired against footballers from the start, who normally only break into the first team of their club around the age of 21, only lower if they’re lucky, with gymnasts or swimmers, whose careers normally peak around 21, much more likely to be recognised for achievement in teenage years.
I would like to take special interest in one perplexing factor to me here though. With only four of the fifty-five Overseas Personality trophies being handed over to footballers – Eusebio in 1966, Pele in 1970, Ronaldo in 2002 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014 – and considering the importance of football to the fabric of our global economy and culture, with the World Cup being the vastly most prominent single sporting competition on earth, why haven’t more overseas players been recognised? They are the global leaders of the single most important sport in the world, yet names like Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho, Andres Iniesta and the aforementioned Messi have never been recognised by the BBC’s widely respected and momentous ceremony. Just to compound this misery, in the widely respected peak years of each of these players, they fell short to the likes of American, Spanish and Australian golfers Lee Trevino (Cruyff, 1971), Seve Ballesteros (Platini, 1984) and Greg Norman (Maradona, 1986), fellow American golfer Mark O’ Meara (Zidane, 1998), Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal (Iniesta, 2010) and New Zealand rugby union star Dan Carter (Messi, 2015).
Are you seriously telling me the season-long, world-class efforts of someone like Maradona, which culminated in an outstanding captain’s performance in leading his side to the 1986 World Cup, were worth less than Greg Norman’s single Major tournament win, the Open Championship, as well as nearly-but-not-quite second-place finishes in the PGA Championship and Masters, in the same year? I know Maradona wasn’t exactly a favourable chap in the UK, or at least in England, at the time, after his ‘hand of God’ antics, but couldn’t the BBC have put this aside, as well as the government’s dislike of Argentinians following the Falklands War four years previous, to respect the clearly superior sporting achievements of a generation-defining footballer over a considerably more presentable, nationally relatable (as an English-speaking and cultured Australian) golfer? There is a reason golf is respected as more of a leisure activity than a serious sporting industry you know.
I would’ve hoped that organisations like the BBC would’ve moved on from clearly politically-motivated decisions such as the Maradona-Norman one. But considering Messi’s rejection from reception of the award just last year, falling short despite winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey, Champions League, European Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, to a similarly nationally relatable Commonwealth citizen in New Zealander Carter, who practically won the award simply on his commendable but not quite as outstanding MOTM performance in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final, I can only see a repeat of a decision, which with the benefit of hindsight, seemed absurd in 1986.
If anything, I believe the decision to select Carter was based upon sentimentality towards a player who retired from international rugby immediately after his World Cup win, and personally I can’t accept that. In such a prestigious and important sporting awards ceremony, I believe competitors should be rewarded for their performances, not their stories, as Messi and Carter shared large sections of their respective tales; creative catalysts and match-winners in each of their sides, who have overcome incredibly slim odds to get where they are today, and that the only difference is that one won five trophies by playing anything up to 70 matches in the space of a year, while the other won a single, but admittedly era-defining, trophy by participating in a maximum of 30 matches for both club and country. I’m sorry if this is just me, but that just doesn’t seem like sporting equality.
It’s not just physical stamina that defines the efforts of footballers across the period of a year in their sport though; it’s the mental resilience that they have to show, to come back from so many dips in form, morale and absolute degradations of sporting credibility from the press, to achieve so much, I think football does deserve much more recognition when it comes to the polls. I know it’s unlikely either Bale or Vardy will topple the rightful champion this year in Andy Murray, the unarguably dominant figure in British sport for his Olympic Gold Medal, Wimbledon win, 78 singles wins – including a run of 25 straight wins from October to the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals, and historic world number one ranking, but I do believe both can finish quite highly in the overall scheme of the list. I know Vardy might have not always said the right things in the past, but that is the most endearing thing about him; his common touch, and Bale might appear a spoilt brat in a team full of overpaid diva Galacticos, but both are loved by their audience, and considering that audience is football, they should garner decent shares of the final vote (in fact, I’d even say the smart money is on Vardy finishing second in the overall result), as they are flying the flag for a recently under-represented sport, and I wouldn’t bet against this sport fighting back. Some may argue that no British footballer has deserved recognition since 1966, but to say this is to gloss over the importance of the club game, or the achievements of overseas footballers, who have also been subject to the prejudices of judging panels in the past and present.
In conclusion of my findings, I can only believe that it is the judging panels, and the context of who the puppeteers behind them are, that give reasoning behind the agonising lack of footballing representatives, as they only decide to play into the publically accepted image of footballers as sleazy, gluttonous, fat cats, as the governments in charge of the BBC and therefore this award desire only the wider political support of their adoring public. This may be a sad and telling fact of the state of our society, that it has hardly changed in the 62 years now of the award’s running, but if you do examine the state of SPOTY, and the names of those who have scooped the biggest prizes from it over the years, you can only draw this conclusion. For now though, we can but point towards the mental stamina, versatility and courage that it takes to be successful in the field of football, even more so than in others, as these guys give up 20 years of their lives to carve out the most successful careers possible. Few have the luck to carry this standard of success throughout, but when a few select individuals do, I believe they should be acknowledged. Even if they do partake in an often corrupt and immoral industry which they can’t be too endeared to, these players persevere because they love the sport, and sacrifice so much to it, even if our society, and SPOTY as a major part of it, can’t respect that.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!