Footballers are celebrities, and celebrities as a rule are not particularly likeable people.
Footballers are paid a stupendous amount of money for the sole purpose of kicking a ball around on a field, but what can they do with that money? They certainly can’t spend it as you or I likely would—refreshing dips in a bathtub filled entirely with fine, heated champagne...or chartering a super yacht for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Iceland simply to ascertain whether or not it is actually made entirely out of ice.
No. Footballers do not have the outlet of debauchery available to them that makes fame, flamboyance and freshly fruiting finances at least somewhat likeable to the proletarian. Their continued success relies exclusively on them being in absolutely peak physical condition, and therefore there are regrettably few modern-day George Bests around to provide such quips as “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”.
It is surely a fact, albeit an unacknowledged one, that the best way for a rich and famous person to be liked by the masses is through behaving like a normal person. This is why we have such affection for people like Best—because he just seemed like an ordinary bloke who just happened to be phenomenally good at football, who just happened to find himself in a position in which he was rewarded for playing football with enough money, fame and glamour to have access to pretty much anything he wanted and who, in a fabulously relatable manner, just happened to abuse the crap out of this privilege—just as you or I probably would.
In a similar way, any reaction to a meteoric rise to fame which in turn showcases a meteoric rise in one’s personal ego is really rather distasteful to the general populace. There are few who empathize with Ashley Cole’s tantrum and subsequent desertion of Arsenal when presented with a “joke” contract offer of £55,000 per week; Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s constant jabs at the transcendent Barcelona team who deemed him surplus to requirements come off as pithy and juvenile and when it comes to Cristiano Ronaldo, I think we can all agree that the less said the better for all parties involved.
It is refreshing, then, to be a supporter of Arsenal Football Club at this time, because the current squad is undoubtedly as likeable, down-to-earth and downright cute as a litter of puppy dogs waltzing to The Blue Danube.
A couple of weeks ago, a photograph emerged of a hilariously German-looking Lukas Podolski catching a bus in London to go and grab a pizza.
The Daily Mail ran a story in March on Carl Jenkinson, a lifelong Arsenal fan who now appears to be the proverbial kid who has just been given the keys to the candy store. The article had a number of photographs of Jenkinson’s childhood bedroom, which elicited the kind of warm fuzzies that had me thinking some small Irish people had combined Mentos and Diet Coke in the pit of my stomach.
Look at this photo of Wojciech Szczesny. On a side note, I didn’t even have to double-check how to spell his name for the first time ever—success! But still, look at this photo of Wojciech Szczesny. I challenge you not to smile. You can’t fake that kind of sincere emotion, that kind of unabashed, unselfconscious passion. Not unless your name’s Jenna Jameson.
Olivier Giroud posed for a photo-session in a gay French magazine. Now, I’m not one to integrate sport and politics, but seriously, how cool is that? He’s as straight and ruggedly handsome as the bastard lovechild of Aphrodite and John Wayne—playing what is typically a very macho, image-focussed sport—and yet he goes and poses in a magazine that he knows will cause a stir, but feels an obligation towards because of his views on the issue.
He even gave an interview for the magazine in which he stated that he “would be delighted if his gesture could help change the mentality of some involved in the game,” that “I don’t see any difference between a gay person and a straight one” and that Tetu, the magazine for which he posed, is simply “a magazine just like any other.”
Couple this with the first interview he gave when he became an Arsenal player, in which Giroud offered to share a snack with his interviewer and summed up his fabulous football career thus far with the refreshingly earnest words, “I have certain values. I know where I come from. I am a hard worker. I'm conscious of my luck,” and Giroud gives off the impression of being a wonderfully likeable, uncomplicated character who feels fortunate and blessed to be in the position he is in. Exactly how we like our footballers to be.
But that’s not all. Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla recently interviewed one another for a Spanish radio show, and their conversation was downright heart-warming—I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already.
To see such chemistry and true friendship between two of Arsenal’s most talented, vital and famous players—to see the jokes and the jibes permeated by an obviously shared love of the novelty of their surroundings, and to then have this conversation delve into the emotional longing of Arteta to represent his country, reacted to with understanding and touching empathy by his countryman, but free from bitterness or internal conflict or envy—this interview really showcases the wonderful characters of our two most wonderful players.
Meanwhile, Per Mertesacker has spoken out on how much he loves life in London, is as superbly chilled out as the grassy banks overlooking the folk stage at Woodstock (yes, that was something of a pun...) and just looks funny and likeable.
Touch wood, and never say never, but it’s hard to picture these players being set upon by the transsexual misadventures, the “texual” indiscipline, the tabloid-fodder marital transgressions or the bouts of prima donna “sadness” that some of the more susceptible footballers of the celebrity generation have allowed themselves to surrender to.
The Arsenal team is grounded and level-headed. They are footballers, not celebrities. And this is largely down to the guile of that omnipotent force at Arsenal: Arsene Wenger.
Though fans have been made to bear with a number of high-profile departures over the past six years, a common thread permeates those outgoings, and that is the strength of those players’ personalities, and their burgeoning egos.
Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, William Gallas, Alex Song...all of these players had strong, confrontational personalities, which could undoubtedly have evolved (and in some cases already had evolved) into detrimental dressing-room presences.
These egos even stretch to embody entire teams. All you have to do is take a look at the duplicity with which Barcelona conducts their transfer business.
This, however, is not how Wenger does things. He has a philosophy, and a part of that philosophy is that a team is a sum of its parts. There is no room for overwhelming egos at Arsenal, because that would unbalance the team, and if there is one thing that Wenger strives for above all, it is balance.
He is a man who buys the right players for the good of the team. If the right player is unavailable, he would rather buy nobody than someone who he feels would not be a good fit.
Even a player as outwardly vital as Theo Walcott is being put in his place by Wenger’s policy of reason, perspective and moderation when dealing with his players.
I am sure the boss would have no problem paying Theo £100,000 a week if he had proved himself deserving of such a deal through the consistency and quality of his performances. But buckling to a player simply because he is demanding something is a rejection of Wenger’s inherent principles: it would be giving the player the wrong idea both about his contributions as a player, and his status within the fabric of the club. Walcott may be an important player, but he is not so important that Wenger will flaunt his principles to keep him.
I am objectively glad that I support Arsenal. I’ve said before that I want to like the men who wear the Arsenal shirt. It means a lot to me, and I like to think it means a lot to them as well. I want to think of them as blokes I could have a pint and normal conversation with, instead of coming across as thinking of themselves as gods among men.
Just imagine how unlikeable the interview would be if it was John Terry and Ashley Cole probing one another (LOL).
We’ve got it pretty good on the red side of London.
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