With the Corona-virus, or some other bug, holding its grip firmly around my neck I spent Saturday night on the couch with my only company being Netflix and the brilliant new original series The English Game. This takes us back to the late 19th century when football was a game played between gentlemen that predominantly came out of the private schools in the south. Already in the first episode these gentlemen are challenged by a team from the north, made up of working men from one of the many mills where football was what carried a bit of hope and joy into the hard life of a blue collar. For the quarter final of the FA Cup where this team of northerners were to travel to London the owner of the mill had brought in an additional two players from Scotland. This caused serious friction in the team as why on earth would somebody leave home to play football? Football was something you did with your mates in your local team. Of course these players were two of the first professional players in the game, even though payment probably came in the form of a job at the mill.
As I watch the English game I reflect on how sports over the years at different times have had to deal with the issue of professionalism. To the players in the English Game playing football for money was to go as low as you could possibly go in sports. It was cheating, not just because it was against the rules but because it had absolutely no decency. Now, compare that with where football is today.
Other sports have been much later in this process. For example my own sport, golf, is only now looking at rewriting its rules of amateur status. The purpose of the amateur status rules in most sports have always been twofold:
- To protect the (amateur) athlete who plays sport in his or her time off from work and therefore will find it difficult to compete with somebody who plays full time.
- To protect the sport from what would always be ”the lure of the dollar” where the risk of players bending, or even breaking, the rules in order to find advantages on the pitch would simply threaten to destroy the game.
Watching the English Game gives me a feeling that something at the heart of what sport used to be, and probably was meant to be, has been lost, and is also forever gone. Even if it might take some time before we have another chance (post Corona) it is worth considering what difference it would have made if that next Premier League or Serie A match did not have money on the line. But then again no, in our time that is impossible to even imagine!