Morality in Football – separating the player from the person

“His legacy lives on: he is just a fantastic human being.” It is the sort of platitude you often hear, usually directed at one of those figures who occupy a near-unique place in common consciousness. Even in today’s superlative-addicted culture, there are certain people – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr – for whom words such as “legacy” and “inspirational” seem reserved for. That is, however, until one enters the realm of sport; for the above quote was not directed at a Nobel Peace Prize winner, nor a transformative political leader, but at Ryan Giggs, the 39-year-old Welsh footballer. The compliment was bestowed on Giggs by Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager of 22 years, after his player scored in a 2-0 win over Everton earlier this year.

Ferguson’s choice of words is intriguing, and serves as a useful starting point for any discussion of the role of morality in football, especially when you investigate the character of Giggs himself. An undoubtedly talented footballer, the midfielder was at the centre of a national scandal in 2011 when he was identified as having taken out a super-injunction preventing newspapers reporting his affair with reality-TV star Imogen Thomas; he was also later accused of having an eight-year affair with his sister-in-law, not, then, the obvious typefit of a “fantastic human being”. What was it, then, that provoked Ferguson to bestow such a universal compliment on someone who, by any objective standards, can claim to be at most a superb sportsman blessed with an enviable longevity.

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A fantastic player, but a fantastic human being?

The answer ostensibly lies in modern football’s inability, amongst both fans and those involved in the game, to distinguish between a player’s merits on the field and his personality and character off it. As fans, we often seem seduced by talent on the field, and go on to project those qualities to the person as opposed to the player. It is not simply as shallow an approach as good player equals good person – rather a case of assuming that the roles we pigeonhole a player into in terms of their function in the team also apply off the field. We extrapolate those characteristics and assume they apply in all situations, so the feisty and aggressive midfielder is imagined as short-tempered and hostile off it, whilst the solid and no-nonsense centre-half is portrayed as honest and workmanlike off the field as well. Rare is the sporting interview that does not make some reference to how far the image a player projects on the field squares with that of the person being interviewed.

I’m sure that an interesting study could be done in relation to how different personalities express themselves when put under pressure, both in sporting and other professional situations. A more pertinent question, however, would be to question the superficiality of our approach as both fans of the game and observers and interactors in human life. We seem to find it genuinely difficult to separate how someone behaves under severe pressure from how that same person carries himself in a non-professional context. How does that reflect on us, as a society, when we resort to one-dimensional caricatures of people in a very specific context – the “bulldog” midfielder or the “languid” striker – to guide us as to a person’s character, and make us think we are qualified to make judgements on what they would or wouljd not be likely to do.

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Charitable off the pitch, cheat on it?

Few serve to illustrate this point better than the former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba. On the pitch, despite being one of the best footballers English football has seen in recent years, the Ivorian earned himself a reputation as a diver, prepared to deceive officials in order to gain the most minor of advantages. A great footballer, basically, but not someone who you would want to trust your last tenner with. However, Drogba is a leading spokesperson for peace on his continent, playing a key role in brokering a ceasefire in his country’s civil war, being appointed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a Goodwill Ambassador, and acting as founder of the “Didier Drogba Foundation”, charity to which the striker donated £3 million of his own money to build a shelter for the homeless in his home town. Here is the classic example of how one’s unsporting behaviour on the field need not translate to a deceitful approach to life.

A more complex picture, however, is seen in Craig Bellamy. Generally accepted as being a bit of a bastard on the field, Bellamy also has a record off the field, having confronted then-Liverpool team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club on a team night-out. However, the Welshman is also a dedicated fundraiser, investing £1.2m of his own money since 2007 to help build a not-for-profit football academy in the Kono region of Sierra Leone, as well as the building of the Craig Bellamy Foundation for disadvantaged children in the same country. For any “normal” person, of course, whose perceived character has not been affected by mass exposure and analysis by sporting “experts”, it would be relatively easy to explain Bellamy’s personality. He is a decent, hardworking man, with his priorities in the right place, who happens to break down and become aggressive under pressure. However, our opinions are so saturated with received wisdom about Bellamy’s personality on the field, and so desperate are we to immerse ourselves into a game which is an obsession (and an escape) for so many, to believe that those who play the game are as immersed in it as we are, that we refuse to accept such a complex character portrayal. Bellamy is a nasty piece of work when he plays football. Therefore, any deviation from that stereotype when he is not playing football seems, to us, incongruous.

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The lesser seen side of Craig Bellamy

What Ferguson was confusing, therefore, when he heaped such lavish praise on Giggs, was professional aptitude with private personality. Perhaps a better description of Giggs would be that articulated by his brother, Rhodri Giggs: “Ryan’s a great footballer, but he is nothing as a man.” However, even that would be to simplify the issue. For what we seem to have forgotten, both in regards to football and in our desire for streamlined, reduced information that is easy to assimilate, is that no-one’s personality can be reduced to a single sentence, a memorable soundbite. Ryan Giggs is a hardworking, dedicated professional who is immensely talented, yet has also worked supremely hard to stay at the top of his game for over two decades. Despite that, he also accompanied that with a striking lack of empathy, an emotional crime of the worst kind, that makes it difficult to say anything positive about his private morality. Despite being the truth, however, that would not make a particularly catchy headline. And perhaps that is the problem.

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