“It is just a pair of lucky boxer shorts that I used in the first game as well and have used before the tournament. I didn’t know I was breaking any rules but I am aware of that now.” With a goal already to his name in a match marking his 50th cap, much was resting on the shoulders of Denmark’s controversial frontman Nicklas Bendtner.
Up against a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal, who was fresh off of yet another astonishing season at Real Madrid, in search of an equaliser, Bendtner met Lars Jacobsen’s cross at the far post to equalise late on in the second half. As he ran away in celebration, with his hands signalling for calm, a ‘why always me’ sort of look grimaced his face since. Having just brought his team back from 2-0 down, he ever so slightly lifted his shirt, revealing a chiselled torso and the top crease of his boxers as he unwittingly lowered his shorts below his waistline. Plastered across the white band of his green underwear were the words ‘Paddy Power’.
A harmless act, vaguely noticeable against the backdrop of his goal in a match of such magnitude at Euro 2012, right? It shouldn’t have even been mentioned, let alone remembered, for any reason, especially given that Varela would snatch Portugal the win seven minutes later with a last-ditch goal.
To many of those watching on their TV sets, they probably wouldn’t have given his celebration much thought, mainly because there wasn’t much to think about. No acrobatics, no feverish pitch invader coming to hug him, nothing of the sort. And yet, in the grand scheme of the evolution of football in this hyper-consumerist age of modern capitalism, Bendtner’s seemingly harmless revelation that night in Lviv meant a lot more.
In the aftermath of the loss, Bendtner was fined in the excess of €100,000 as well as being banned for one match as a result of his choice of celebration. This wasn’t a political message per se, which usually warrants some form of authoritative stance, but it was a message nonetheless and constituted salient punishment from UEFA – a punishment exceeding that dished out to many for racist or discriminatory actions.
Interestingly, Bendtner had his hefty fine paid by the very company that he was sponsoring; the online sports betting heavyweight Paddy Power. They fully admitted to pre-planning the celebration and had purposefully chosen Bendtner, claiming that the necessary reaction they anticipated had been achieved.
In that instance, as he celebrated, Bendtner was not just a footballer. He wasn’t merely a national hero or a man who had fulfilled every Danish boy’s dream. No, he was a paid employee – a walking billboard and a commodity in itself.
While Bendtner wasn’t actually charged for his display of a sponsor’s message, UEFA’s disciplinary panel held him in contempt for not following the preapproved stipulations that give UEFA the monopoly on what can or cannot be displayed in a match (i.e. he wasn’t giving them a cut of whatever he received for pulling off this publicity stunt, violating the code of conduct and the rules set in place to consolidate the flow of sponsorship money). Yet had Paddy Power been an official match or tournament sponsor, this wouldn’t really have been an issue.
The fact that this is why he was fined, and for being a celebrity who is essentially promoting gambling with impressionable minds watching, draws the line on where modern football is headed. Governing bodies themselves no longer exist to enforce regulations, let alone implement a just and moral sense within the confines of the game; they see it as a business, selling bit by bit to the highest bidder without much of a moral compass to direct them.
One has to look no further than the Wikileaks of the footballing world, which implicated the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and current FIFA President Gianni Infantino in shady backroom dealings. And it’s too soon to forget the shambolic presidency of Sepp Blatter and his inglorious downfall that rocked the game and brought institutionalised corruption to the fore. But more worrying than anything else was just how quickly things went back to being normal.
It paints a stark picture of not just the reality that football finds itself in modernity, having to grapple with its illustrious past and morph to keep up with the times, but it also speaks to the place of the footballer within the current culture and a sport that we now see dominated by sponsorship deals, online followings, ads, image rights, paid public appearances, super-agents who dictate every aspect of their clients’ careers, peculiar contract stipulations, and so on.
The quintessential footballer of yesterday is no more. Alarmingly, players are no longer solely scrutinised for their on-field exploits, or even their off-field misdemeanours, despite the recent trend towards a moneyball sort of approach influencing performance data analysis, transfers and first-team selection.
More than anything, what they do off of it, who they associate with, and how they go about defining themselves is intrinsic to how the public views them. And in the age of short attention spans and the spectacle, image trumps everything. Indeed, one aspect, above all else, that has befallen the footballing world of superstars more than anything is their disassociation from politics and the creation of the apolitical and apathetic figure.
An astute example of this can be seen in a video that was making the rounds online not long ago. In an interview on CNN Español in 2015, Cristiano Ronaldo reacted angrily and stormed out while the interviewer was in the midst of asking him a politically-charged question. As soon as he said “…one of the related issues that people talk about is the World Cup in Qatar. Many sports figures say that to play …” with his voice breaking away, we see Cristiano, with the shake of his head, taking his mic and headphones off, snapping his fingers to let them know he won’t be continuing while exclaiming in English, “this is bullshit” repeatedly.
Okay, he doesn’t have to like politics, and he doesn’t have to get involved politically if he doesn’t want to, but he does have a responsibility because of who he is and the position he finds himself in.
This wasn’t just a question about the scandal that had broken around the vote that led to Qatar winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, but more prominently angling towards the long reported and often ignored plight of indentured labourers who, under severely tumultuous conditions, are still working to make the tournament possible.
The downtrodden and the forgotten were indirectly mentioned (in fact, the reporter hadn’t even gotten that far) to one of the most recognised sporting figures of his generation and he would rather walk away then at least offer some sort of respectable answer.
But it’s no surprise. For the World Player of the Year to speak out against the corruption engulfing the very institution that awarded him such a prestigious accolade would be suicidal in terms of his legacy, and a discourtesy that would jeopardise his functionality in the upper echelons of the footballing pyramid. Imagine being blackballed for having the audacity to give those without a voice some form of dignity.
But it outlines the very spectre haunting modern football and the model footballer – a sporting spectacle that is enforced by the general public, which both the footballers want to distance themselves from and yet need in order to play. Take any game behind closed doors and it’s not hard to see that the soul is sucked out of the match itself.
Corporate sponsors like Paddy Power, sporting manufacturers, tabloids; they all cater around selling football to the general public. Modern football sells because it can create the very concept of the star and the image that revolves around it – someone who is a removed from the general public, an anomaly from the norm worthy of fame and exempt from the rules because they are on the pitch.
The football match itself was a public event and hence a product of the reactionary social forces at play, locally, globally or ideologically that were expressed, if not on the pitch by the players, then in the stands at least. More than a gathering place, these matches were a rallying point and reflective of the beliefs, conditions and emotions of the surrounding public. And it’s always been like that.
Fans are meant to and take up the opportunity to express their grievances, voice their opinion, and are heard in some way because the cameras and the media are present. In some ways, football belongs to the public, and not the other way around. Indeed, before Ronaldo, there were a host of figures who were not just remembered as heroes on the pitch, but off it as well, with their politics at the forefront of the legacies they carved.
The 20th century exemplified the various ways in which civil activism centred around and depended on football. From Sócrates to Cantona, Ben Bella to Aboutrika, amongst countless others, football and the socio-political reality of our world have always been on a collision course. The two are inescapable.
The short term answer as to why we are plagued with such a change in attitude today is simply because politics does not sell. The commodification of every aspect of the game, but more so the footballer itself, is largely responsible for the trend towards depoliticisation.
Furthermore, global bodies have gone out of their way on more than one occasion to regulate and assure that politics are kept separate from the beautiful game. But this is nigh on impossible. Football is an escape from the dreaded reality that builds up in the back of our heads, which we often want to ignore.
Not only is it that our very social fabric and the reality of daily life is shaped by political decisions in one way or another, but football, more than any other sport, is a socially-driven phenomenon. When corporations were further away from dictating the culture around the sport, players and managers alike were not only expected to have an opinion on happenings outside of the game, they were encouraged to express it.
In societies where oppression or subjugation were commonplace, the expectation was that footballers and the spectacle of the match itself would give the opportunity to redirect attention towards issues of importance. From fans protesting the fascist regime of Mussolini in Italy to the Corinthians Democracy that gained popularity against the backdrop of authoritarianism sweeping Brazil, not to mention Brian Clough showing up in solidarity with miners marching against Margaret Thatcher, football has never shied away from politics. It was never allowed to.
Nowadays, with billions of pounds worth of TV money pouring into the world’s biggest leagues, activism amongst football fans and players has diminished. Politics of any kind no longer mixes well within the current culture because the dominant narrative within the game is centred around consumerism, or at least for the fans it is.
That means it would be preferable for footballers to keep quiet on matters of social tension or even structural issues such as racism that still remain the long-standing elephant in the room. Corporations would rather have a player be more like Nicklas Bendtner.
While his underpants may have been a one-off, with every corporate penny that lines the pockets of the game – players, agents and executives alike – the footballer loses another ounce of their individuality. The inability to speak out and express personal opinion has morphed footballers into an idyllic product that not only sells, but only exists to do so.
By Haider Syed @dialectichiphop