‘I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak’ – George Best
In sport, genius and transgression are closely related. Yet the reaction to dissonance in different sports could not be more different
Last week Wayne Rooney, once the great hope of English football, the street-footballer turned superstar, the player defined by his unlimited tenacity and energy, embarked on a destructive streak of his own. The FA are investigating claims Rooney defied England interim manager Gareth Southgate by returning to a wedding party at the team hotel after being told by the coach to go to bed. Ten other players are also under investigation for going on a night out in London.
Crystallising the mood of weary England fans and the cynical media, the FA chief executive Martin Glenn commented, as if addressing the players themselves: “Why on earth are you doing that given there is an understanding, a team agreement around alcohol consumption during camps?”
Rooney’s drinking session was made to look even worse by comments from another England captain: those of Dylan Hartley, Rugby Union player and a fellow rebel rouser with a destructive streak of his own.
‘I know some of the best players in the world drink every night and have been absolutely outstanding, but that’s the exception, most players don’t drink during the week.’
His comments were backed up by Eddie Jones, the Union team manager, who when asked about whether a similar scenario has been an issue for his own players, commented:
“They are adults. The guys will come back, have a beer and decide when they go to bed. The time we have a curfew is the time we don’t have a leadership group in the team.”
The comments made by all parties raise the question of how attitudes towards drinking can be so different between the two sports?
Both sports are fully embedded into the professional era, with players better trained and tested than ever. Neither sport is less demanding than the other, allowing for late night piss-ups. Yet the noises coming from the football team seniority are reminiscent of disappointed parents telling off their children, while the rugby team leadership address each other as adults.
Perhaps it is the background of the two sports. The England Rugby team largely consists of ex-public school boys, well-educated young men who know the dangers of drinking. The same cannot be said of the players in the football team, who are often from poorer backgrounds and in new territory when they suddenly receive enormous wealth.
Best himself commented on this factor, remarking that “Footballers today are millionaires by the time they’re 22 or 23. More and more of them are going out and looking for something to give them a buzz outside football, be it gambling, drugs or booze.”
The cultures of the two sports are incredibly distinct in their treatment of alcohol as well. Rugby players are often photographed post-game enjoying a beer in the changing room. Champagne is still handed out as a man of the match trophy, a tradition now banned in football. Stories of rugby club initiations and marathon drinking sessions are rife and while frowned upon are seen as accepted parts of the sport. The same can no longer be said of football, which under scrutiny brought on by the hooliganism of the 80’s, has undergone a professional and sober makeover.
Still, even incorporating the culture and the background, the different attitudes and treatment seem strange. Arguably, the Rooney saga has brought to light how the nation’s rugby players are treated like adults, while the football team are regarded as children. As Eddie Jones alluded to, his rugby team consists of men with their own agency, who are given the responsibility to make their own decisions. Martin Glenn’s comments position the football team, however, as feckless, incapable of handling pressure, requiring rules and regulations to manage themselves all as if they were small children who need to be told when to go to bed.
Perhaps the real cause of the problem here is not where these men come from, or the culture they were raised in, but how their colleagues and fans treat them.