Where talent still trumps background

This article is from the 8th edition of The Cynical, our free online magazine.

 

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Against the backdrop of another football extravaganza, the 2018 World Cup in Russia encouraged deeper soul-searching for the sport. Amidst the media frenzy – and a determination to squeeze every last drop of possible content out of the event – came analyses of the tournament’s possible implications: from diplomatic tensions; to ethical inquisitions; to the racial stereotyping of African teams. These are all worthy issues, but some of the most moving pieces came in the form of widely shared articles from The Players’ Tribune

Vivid autobiographical accounts from the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Raheem Sterling found themselves shared and re-shared across the internet. These pieces depict poverty and youthful struggles in cruel, unfair conditions. As football fans, we all love a good underdog story: the tantalising defeat of adversity, against all odds. However, these stories are very real, often painful, and extremely common in the football world.

The magic of football is found in its closeness to the peaks and troughs of life. It is at once synthetic and harmless, yet very real: its close-but-not-enough moments, heartbreaking; its underdog achievements, overwhelming. It holds itself reflectively – and often romantically – against the waveform of our lives. For most it does so synthetically, like a cathartic safe play area; as masochistic as horror cinema or as euphoric as a few beers. But for some this drama is very real. Its achievements and failures are inextricably linked to the narrative of that individual’s life. For some it is genuinely the only way – the authentic underdog story.

 

I remember the exact moment I knew we were broke. I can still picture my mum at the refrigerator and the look on her face.”

– Romelu Lukaku

 

What these and similar backstories tell us is that there is a link between football and social mobility. In the UK, social mobility remains an onerous issue – an economic pandora’s box, with implications stretching across different areas of the social spectrum. Football’s place in this picture is – to use the tired cliché – a game of two halves, both positive and negative. It is, of course, a sad state of affairs that football is one of the few genuinely meritocratic industries in which people can rely solely on their talent. It is not an exact science – especially with regards to access to facilities – but it is much more realistic than overcoming, for example, the attainment gap.

 

Let me tell you something — every game I ever played was a Final. When I played in the park, it was a Final. When I played during break in kindergarten, it was a Final. I’m dead-ass serious. I used to try to tear the cover off the ball every time I shot it. Full power. We weren’t hitting R1, bro. No finesse shot. I didn’t have the new FIFA. I didn’t have a Playstation. I wasn’t playing around. I was trying to kill you.

– Romelu Lukaku

The very fact that football can provide a route of social progress for those in difficult situations is, of course, a positive thing. Sport can almost live up to its on-field narratives of aspiration and ambition by providing many with a living that they may not otherwise have acquired due to social inequality. Incidentally, football’s continued position as the primary working-class sport affirms its position in this regard, ahead of other popular sports. This closeness to working-class culture naturally sees it fall victim to a condescending, sometimes sinister, attitude.

As we have seen in recent debates about the numbers regarding applications for Oxbridge and entries to Love Island, it’s awfully easy for people to turn their nose up to alternative forms of social mobility. But when we still operate in an educational and occupational pyramid based on class, race, and gender, how can we blame these people for finding alternative methods of bettering themselves financially? There is undoubtedly an elitist slant in the coverage and criticism of football as a career.

Given Raheem Sterling’s Jamaican origins and the Congolese background of Romelu Lukaku, it is of course impossible to look at these issues without looking at them through the prism of race. This is an issue for a more knowledgeable (and frankly, less white) writer than myself. However, I will say that the classist attitude towards football – as well as the everyday racism that ethnic minorities still face – can be encapsulated by the obsessive reporting of Raheem Sterling’s life by news outlets such as the Daily Mail and The Sun.

The right-wing press’ fixation with Raheem Sterling have strong undertone of racism and classism.

 

There are, of course, financial issues with regards to football. The inflation of wages and fees in the top leagues is spiralling out of control. We’ve all been waiting for the “bubble to burst” for some time now. While I am arguing that the sport undoubtedly provides social mobility, I do respect that it does so primarily within developed nations – infrastructure dictates that it is still immensely difficult for footballers from Asia and Africa to progress to financially comfortable positions. These are problems which football must come to terms with and remedy.

 

“I grew up in the shadow of my dream. Literally. I watched the new Wembley stadium go up from my back garden. One day, I walked outside and I saw this massive arch in the sky. It was rising up over the top of the housing estates like a mountain. I used to kick about in this green right by my house, and I could take a shot on goal and then turn round to celebrate and the Wembley arch would literally be right above my head. It was like you were there.

I was really like, I can play there. I can do it.”

Raheem Sterling

 

I firmly believe that football’s popularity is down to a combination of two things: that it mirrors the ups and downs of our lives, and that it lives out our keenest ambitions. For some, though, it is more than an emotional indulgence or a bracing hobby. For some, the opportunities are genuine and, sometimes, the only way.

 

This article is from the 8th edition of The Cynical, our free online magazine.

 

DOWNLOAD THE CYNICAL HERE:

EPUB FORMAT  (great for iBooks and other e-readers)

PDF FORMAT


Dan is a 22-year-old from Glasgow. He is a student who also works in media. His dearest passions are films, books, music and Mohamed Bangura's YouTube skills compilation. Find him on Twitter: @TheDJMcGowan


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