Olympian defends football stars – at least off the pitch

FOLLOWING the recent success of Team GB at the London Olympics, many people are inevitably comparing footballers with athletes. As such, many expect fans and athletes of other sports to dislike footballers. But this comparison isn’t entirely fair.

The combination of enormous wages, lavish lifestyles and bad headlines has made footballers fair game for relentless criticism in the press. As much as people look up to footballers for their abilities on the field, they increasingly serve as figures to be scrutinised and condemned.

We associate the smiling faces of our Olympians with dedication, patriotism and success; the opposite of the sneering, spoilt footballers. But while there is some truth behind the perception, I don’t see it as being that black and white.

As aspiring athletes, we are brought up with the belief that we are ordinary people doing ordinary things. Humility is encouraged. While we all love what we do, we are taught to work hard for it and maintain professionalism at all times. I think many footballers are brought up differently. Footballers’ talent is spotted at a very young age, sometimes as young as three. They are then taken every step of the way through their development and always made to believe that they are special people with special skills.

Clubs may feel that it’s necessary for footballers to be fussed over and flattered, to help them realise their potential. But I think this contributes to the way that top-level footballers have drifted out of touch with the fans they are playing in front of every week, for ten months a year. But therein lies another reason why we see so much bad behaviour and unprofessionalism from footballers: they play so many games.

It is easy to point the finger at footballers when they don’t deliver on the pitch and are then seen stumbling out of a nightclub at 3am. It may be a tired cliché, but the fact is they are human. And it’s hard for an athlete from a different sport to comprehend dealing with the kind of pressure and media attention that footballers get every week.

I hate to shatter the illusion, but Olympians are certainly not angels. The Olympic Village is rightly famed for its condom usage. Mind you, I’m not sure who’s using them – it’s certainly not me! Footballers are under pressure to perform two, or sometimes three times a week, and when you’re in the spotlight that often, the misdemeanours are bound to make headlines.

But, although it’s unfair to compare footballers with Olympians off the pitch, one thing I can’t condone is the behaviour that you see on the pitch. It’s hard to have much sympathy when week in week out you see diving, cheating, spitting and swearing at officials. This is not something you would ever see at the Olympics, and I think it could be largely eradicated by a firmer stance from the authorities.

Despite my love of football (Plymouth Argyle F.C.), there are limits to what I can support.

Greg Searle MBE is an Olympic gold medallist. His autobiography, If Not Now, When? is published by Macmillan, eBook and Hardback (£18.99).