Being a footballer has always meant being something of a globetrotter. Football exists in the way that it does because people left their own countries to make new lives for themselves all over the world, and they took their pastime with them. Later, the nations to which those railway workers and factory owners had voyaged sent youngsters of their own back in the opposite direction. In the meantime, football went global, inspired by human migration as much as human migration was inspired by it.

The annals of football are littered with stories that are variations on the many standard expat tales. Those who went native (Cantona), those who had their eyes opened (Waddle), those who seemed to change the fabric of the footballing cultures they encountered, as if by sheer force of will (Cruyff). Those tales constitute one end of the spectrum. At the other, you have Brazilians moored in Tórshavn, Brits struggling to find Rice Krispies in Milan and Nicolas Anelka lost in Madrid.

The amount of information available to us means that we probably know more about the lives of the current crop of footballers than any before; they are more rounded, more human. Yet in a context in which footballers are increasingly being commodified, and as the universe they inhabit gets further and further away from our own, the risk of their being seen not as people but as objects increases. No-one benefits from such a situation, but the globetrotters are among those who have the most to fear.

* * *

People have many identities. We often define ourselves by what we do – journalist, teacher, IT consultant or even footballer – but we are never just that. We are spouses, children, parents, friends, lovers, colleagues. We are also characteristics; the funny one, the one who offers the best advice, the one who introduces their friends to new, interesting people or new, interesting music. Much of the stigma unemployed people feel is that they might struggle to answer the question “so what do you do?”, but they can at least fall back on the other identities they have within their family or among their friends. They still have value.

In a new country, especially when stripped of the ability to communicate, your identity and the things that define you change. No-one knows you as the funny one or the guy who gives good advice so, in a sense, you cease to be those things. Even if, before leaving, you had planned and prepared mentally for many possible outcomes, automatically being rendered the stupidest person in whatever room you happen to be in will be a shock to the system. Without the things that defined your past life, you must then devote the energy that would ordinarily be directed at them and repurpose it towards whatever might be at hand. The logical response to such a crisis might be to throw yourself into the one part of your identity that remains: your job. So you stop doing the things that matter to you. You might even stop sleeping. All in a vain attempt to keep the wheels turning on the last remaining thing available to you that reminds you that you do, in fact, have value.

This does not work, because the mindset required is utterly all-consuming. The best case scenario involves becoming a semi-sentient automaton. The worst case scenario is mental disintegration. The latter is more likely because few brains can handle being operated in this way. No time truly counts as relaxation time, such are the self-imposed mental strains, and without the ability to relax, any ability to work efficiently is lost. When unable to work efficiently, the quality of the work that is turned in becomes subject to doubt. Eventually, you start to perceive that you are not doing very well at your job. You start to be sure of it.

What then defines you is not who you are, because the people who understand that identity are too far away. Nor is it what you do, because as far as you are concerned, you are not doing it well enough. What defines you is the fact that, both socially and professionally, you are failing. Your identity is that of a failure, nothing more.

Unless the personal or professional situations change, the internalisation of such a message becomes inevitable. You are incompetent. Worse, you are a scumbag, a thief, your salary the stolen money of the very people who are depending on you. You are worse than incompetent, you are a hindrance, actively preventing the people around you from succeeding. Your colleagues know this. They look at you like some excremental disappointment. What the fuck is this entity doing here? Hey, you, what the fuck are you doing here? You do not belong here. You are worthless. You do not deserve what you have. You deserve to die.

Many people are propelled into the depths of depression by their own paranoia about their own poor performance, the imagined hatred of colleagues or acquaintances. Imagine for a moment how much worse it must be to have that hatred rendered real, audible and visceral in the booing and whistling all about your ears upon being substituted off after another poor performance. How could anyone survive such an experience on a weekly basis?

Imagine a footballer. Imagine him moving abroad to a country whose language he does not speak and in which he has no contacts. The layers of his personality are stripped away, and he ceases to be a complete, rounded human being. He becomes a footballer, a commodity, and nothing more. Shorn of alternative ways to exist or express himself, he devotes himself to his work, but confidence will not come because he still cannot speak to nor form any real connections with anyone. Shorn of confidence, he struggles to play well. Fans of his team, as impatient as fans tend to be, were expecting more. And they do not hide their disappointment, irritation or anger. He has to undergo the weekly humiliation of being yelled at by people who are supposedly on his side, without even knowing what exactly it is that those people are yelling.

Consider the likes of Robert Pirès or Didier Drogba, who overcame the doubts and whistles of their own fans to become legends at those same clubs. How possessed of some other-worldly self-confidence they must be. Conversely, consider the fate and quite probable anguish of Albert Luque, prince of SuperDepor’s left wing, reduced to a punchline on Tyneside. Or Mateja Kezman, who tried and tried and tried some more but never recovered his PSV form, either in London or Paris. Some of the actions of the latter group, seen from this perspective, suddenly make much more sense.

The slightly-too-candid interviews homesick footballers give to press outlets from their native countries come to mind, first amongst them the notorious interview Nicolas Anelka gave to France Football that earned him a month-long ban from Real Madrid. When a person is stripped, so to speak, of the constituent parts of a personality that defines them, it is logical to experience an incredibly strong desire to reconnect with an environment where they do make sense. Sentiments that do not get or cannot be expressed in the new environment flow freely once plugged back into a world where these individuals have not only an identity but also value, as someone whose opinion is sought at all.

* * *

Football is not as physically dangerous as it once was, for players or fans. Players are better protected and, for the most part, the more homicidal tendencies of their fans have been checked. But other risks remain, especially in a context in which human beings are increasingly being seen by managers and supporters as commodities. Neither fame, nor money, nor any other material benefits that being a footballer offer, will protect them when standing on the edge of an abyss. The only safeguard is support.



Progress/Qui Bono?

I do not intend this space to become a forum for discussing recent events in football. There exist enough blogs that do this better than I could, and my writing is sufficiently bad that pieces that I consecrate less than a month’s worth of editing to might be totally unreadable. Nonetheless every once in a while one becomes particularly annoyed by something, and the only way to vent that anger is by writing about it.

In the last 24 hours much hot air has been expelled in the English sporting press over the measures imposed against the Serbian FA by the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body. A lot of the criticism comes from the same template as the generic ‘crisis’ articles that are trotted out on a weekly basis. A sermon about the ‘obvious’ deficiencies followed either by a suggested solution that is totally unworkable [1][2], or by more sanctimonious criticism with no proposed solution at all

The lack of realistic, workable proposed solutions, not to mention the lack of even the merest hint of nuance in these comment pieces only prompts further questions. These three came to my mind first:

What kind of fine would be deemed “sufficient”?

Who benefits, long term, from this fine?

How often are the victims of an injustice content with the punishment handed out to those found guilty?

Having watched press statements from the steps outside court-houses on the evening news most nights for the last twenty years, I would suggest that the answer to the third of these questions is ‘almost never’. I do not think any sanction would be enough for the English contingent in Krusevac (and Danny Rose in particular) given the abuse they went through in October. But, harsh as it sounds, the victims of a crime should have as little to do with the penal process as possible because for them the motivation is retribution, which helps no-one.

You could probably multiply the fine by ten and it would still be derided as insufficient by the English press, for whom UEFA could do nothing right even before this incident[3]. The efficacy of any kind of fine has been called into question and this is a position I agree with. I do not see how a fine will help. If the issue is the Serbian authorities’ inability to control crowds then surely the playing of matches behind closed doors would be the only workable solution[4]. My main point of disagreement with the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body’s ruling is that they only ordered the Serbian u21 team to play a single match behind closed doors. At least two matches for both the u21 and senior side, as well as a ban on travelling support, would seem a more fitting decision given the recent history of problems, related to racism or otherwise, with Serbian fans both at home and abroad[5].  But the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body’s judgement is subject to appeal (not least by the wider organisation itself) so we can wait for the final outcome before discussing its worth/spouting more thoughtless bile.

Finally, a note on progress. Whenever incidents of this nature come up the articles in the English press are full of badly and probably quickly-written invective with barely concealed disdain that these other countries are not as progressive as England is when it comes to matters of prejudice in sport.

In England, after more than a quarter of a century of effort[6], some progress has been made. Clubs that previously never bought black players now do and some of the fans that never wanted their clubs to buy black players now cheers on the ones they have. When the England captain called Anton Ferdinand a “fucking black cunt” there was widespread outrage. This is in a society that is widely praised for its multicultural make-up, something that undeniably facilitates combating prejudice of this nature. But that society is itself a legacy of a racist colonial era. If England is less racist than most countries it is because of the enormous head start it enjoyed economically. This facilitated a colonial policy. This brought back home people of various ethnicities. The presence of these people, over a period of decades, has helped to combat racism. This racism is still present, but the point has now been reached where it is socially unacceptable.

Racism may cease to be a problem in English football in 50 years[7]. In other countries this will take longer. With regards to the values held by society, progress of any kind takes a long time. That we deplore racism does not change the fact that it will take generations to disappear. Screaming about Niklas Bendtner’s pants and calling for Serbia to be ostracised from international football will do nothing to help this process. We would like the fans in Serbia to think before they shout. How about the tub-thumpers in the English sporting press do the same? And why not talk instead of shout?


[1] It makes me chuckle that Henry Winter crowbars a reference to Sinisa Mihajlovic into his article. What his relevance to the matter at hand is I am not entirely sure, unless Winter’s point is to show us how all Serbians are alike. Interesting too that he fails, like more or less everyone who has said anything on the various racism-based altercations between Serbs and the English over the last few years except Jonathan Wilson, to mention that Mihajlovic was apparently reacting to a racist insult that came from Vieira. An accusation that went uninvestigated. Racism against the Roma, and gypsy populations in general, is still socially acceptable.

[2] Common in both kinds of articles are references to ‘Mr Platini’, that famous enemy of all things English, as if the head of UEFA was personally responsible for reviewing the evidence and handing out the punishments.

[3] They would probably just find another larger fine to compare it to while pointing and screaming like children.

[4] Not banning FSS teams entirely, as Henry Winter proposes, something that will only isolate the Serbs further and will serve only to make the current situation worse.

[5] With the added bonus feature that this would take in both of Serbia’s fixtures with Croatia which would be a serious money spinner for the Serbian FA and a massive headache for UEFA. If hitting the FSS in the pocket is really necessary then preventing them from selling tickets for these games will be more than enough.

[6] Whatever you think of the ‘Kick it Out’ and similar campaigns, their existence means the problem has at least been acknowledged and efforts of some sort are being made to rectify the situation, in direct contrast to the statement the FSS brought out in the aftermath of the events in Krusevac in October

[7] From the first significant wave of black players playing in England in the late 1970s, we still have not reached a point where black people are statistically equally represented in the dugout or in the directors box. We have yet to see the first significant wave of players of British-Asian origin. 50 years is a conservative estimate.