Don’t give up the day job

Footballers should stick to tackling opponents, not obesity.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Later this month I’m taking part in a debate at the Battle of Ideas festival about whether footballers ought to be role models (the correct answer is ‘no’, in case you’re wondering). I’ve had my fill of the great and the good wagging their fingers at misbehaving footballers and demanding that they set an example to our children. However, if there’s one thing worse than a hectoring politician, it’s a sanctimonious footballer.

These days it’s positively de rigeur for professional footballers to become ‘ambassadors’ for some worthy cause or other. As I recall, it was former French winger David Ginola who kick-started the trend when he replaced Princess Di as the landmines ambassador for the Red Cross. Now there’s a steady stream of footballers offering to heal the world.

Ian Wright was a hero when he played for Palace. His stock fell somewhat when he moved to Highbury and took to kissing the Gooner crest but, nonetheless, I still retained a soft spot for him. I can’t say I’m a big admirer of his later work: the cheesy game shows, and ranting vignettes as a BBC football pundit. I’m sure that being shouty and overexcited plays well with some TV viewers but I personally prefer a more understated broadcasting style.

Now, however, with his latest TV venture, Wrighty is really starting to get on my tits. Unfit Kids is a makeover programme-cum-crusade against the modern sin of child obesity. If Ranting Wrighty was bad enough, Self-righteous Wrighty is positively unbearable. Unfit Kids follows the Jamie Oliver recipe for success: transform the lifestyles of a bunch of kids and, in the process, you are transformed from celebrity into saint. (Note to Catholics: the bar of sainthood has been lowered in recent years such that getting a bunch of fatties to run around a bit will suffice in lieu of a miracle.)

Ian Wright isn’t the only footballer to take up the cudgels against obesity. I chuckled when I read recently that Anfield’s sicknote-in-residence Harry Kewell had been appointed a ‘healthy active ambassador’ in the Australian government’s campaign against obesity. Quite what Harry Kewell is going to do to reverse his nation’s expanding waistline is anyone’s guess. The guy’s an incorrigible crock who can’t manage 90 minutes of football and yet he’s supposed to inspire Australian kids to get fit. How’s that supposed to work? If Harry Kewell is setting any sort of example it’s not how to get into shape but how to contrive ever more imaginative ways of crying off from PE lessons.

The latest recruit to the War Against Blubber is Portsmouth goalkeeper David ‘Calamity’ James. It seems that he has put his Armani-modelling, Ferrari-driving, Spice Boy days behind him – not to mention his England goalkeeping days too – and has now evolved into a fully-fledged Graham Le Saux-style Guardianista. Not only is he ‘global ambassador’ to the Special Olympics but he has also founded his own charity, the David James Foundation which supports projects in Malawi. This week, in his new column in the Observer, James argues that fat is a footballing issue. ‘By 2010 one million of our kids will be obese’, writes the Portsmouth goalkeeper. ‘What could be a bigger issue for football than that? In a country of overweight kids, who will be the future footballers and coaches?’ (1)

These worthy sentiments that will, no doubt, strike a chord with Observer readers. However, unlike James, it’s not the next generation we ought to be concerned about but the present generation. This week England’s so-called Golden Generation delivered two more wooden-spoon performances. So wretched were England that a team of obese kids could have probably done a better job against Macedonia and Croatia. And there’s the rub. Maybe our footballers should concentrate more on doing their day jobs properly instead of preaching to the rest of us about obesity or testicular self-examination.

It is football’s inflated cultural significance that gives rise to the contemporary conceit that footballers are role models who are either culpable for moral corrosion or else capable of saving the world. In truth, footballers are neither. In fact, it’s symptomatic of a society that has lost its ethical bearings that it should even look to sportsmen for moral leadership.

There’s only one sense in which we should expect footballers to set an example and that’s playing football. Football heroes ought to inspire us to strive for sporting excellence but, ironically, that’s where England’s current crop of superstars repeatedly let us down. Such is football’s self-importance that today’s players are better at delivering sermons on public health than they are at keeping possession of a football. They need to get their priorities right. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: football comes first, then morals.

You can join discussion and debate on six themes from the Battle of Ideas, including ‘Should footballers be role models?’, at

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

spiked-issue: Obesity

(1) Fine words on sport are a fat lot of use without action, Observer, 8 October 2006

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Topics Politics


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