Paul Parker

In defence of footballers

Paul Parker

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The Olympic Games were fantastic for this country - but I feel I have to jump to the defence of football after so many critics used the performance and attitude of the members of the Team GB side as an opportunity to belittle professional footballers. It was a cheap shot.

Let's not forget where we have come from as a country and what is really our national sport. We have had a great summer - London was a refreshingly friendly and open place during the Olympics, people were actually helping each other on the Tube - but this was a great event in isolation. Will there be the same enthusiasm when the Games take place in Brazil in four years? I doubt it.

Let's not turn the triumph of the Olympics into an opportunity to have a pop at football and footballers - after all, football is what keeps a lot of people going in their day-to-day lives.

I do have concerns about the way today's footballers handle themselves and portray themselves, of course, and someone like Joey Barton makes footballers an easy target with behaviour like we saw on the final day of last season. Individual footballers can certainly ruin it for the majority.

But to use the Olympics to demonise footballers is hugely unfair. It might be fashionable to bash Premier League players at the moment but the Olympics will soon fade from view: once the season starts, less high-profile sports will be put on the back-burner once again.

We have been through this before when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003. We heard about how the oval ball was going to be the most popular, how kids would be playing rugby in the streets. How did that work out?

We have to recognise that football is here every single day. It is our leading sport, it is the world's sport, and that is not going to change. Handball and water polo are okay for a while, but in a year's time are we going to be talking about them? No, we are not. They don't have regular exposure on television and we only see them every four years. So however much we may get wrapped up in the occasion, it doesn't stick with us.

People said it was refreshing to see articulate, friendly interviews from Olympians, contrasting with what we get from our footballers, and there is some truth to that: let's be honest, if you are a footballer there probably wasn't much chance of you being a brain surgeon. A lot of Olympians are from well-educated families whereas football is still very much a working-class sport.

It isn't about how well you talk off the pitch; you do your talking with your feet. The vast majority of fans would rather see a great footballer than a great talker. David Beckham is a fantastic ambassador for football, a great player, but he is not a good talker.

Furthermore, Olympians aren't subjected to the same media pressures as footballers. Interest in their sport comes around only fleetingly, there isn't the 24-hour media circus that there is around football. They aren't confronted with a hostile media, who want to stick a microphone under their nose every couple of days. They aren't under the same kind of scrutiny from reporters.

It is a friendly environment, the Olympics. If you win it is all brilliant, if you lose then you are merely deemed unlucky. Journalists don't veer from that supportive narrative and so athletes get an easy ride. With football it is an entirely different animal.

The financial aspect is vastly different too. Money changes people, that is unavoidable, and if you started paying Greg Rutherford £100,000 a week to do the long jump then perhaps we might be seeing a different character. I earned quite well - not anywhere near as much as they do now of course - but money does change everybody.

These Olympians have made their country proud, won a gold medal, but they are never going to have the lifestyle that a footballer has, suffer the same pressures and cope with the same attention. Athletes are not household names any more, not like when people like Seb Coe and Alan Wells were competing. The sport isn't on TV every Sunday any more, unlike football.

Football has become the behemoth that it is because everyone wants to read about it and watch it. They want to consume it non-stop. That has a knock-on effect with how players behave and how they interact with fans and the media. To try and make a comparison with athletes in that regard is very unfair. The context is completely different.

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