If there is one thing that really gets my goat it is when people describe professional footballers as pampered prima donnas. This stereotype ignores the fact that all these players are operating at the very height of their profession, and a highly competitive profession at that. They have reached that point through hard work and dedication in conjunction with exceptional talent. They have not made it to thus far either by accident or good fortune but by putting in a huge amount of effort and quite often making considerable sacrifices in order to reach that level of performance and they deserve their rewards.
However, over the Christmas/New Year period a range of incidents took place that have undermined my argument and given plenty of fuel to the fire for those who place footballers in the pampered prima donna camp. The various misdemeanours of Giovani Lo Celso, Erik Lamela, Manuel Lanzini, Sergio Reguilon, Aleksander Mitrovic, Luka Milivojevic and Benjamin Mendy add up to a damaging charge sheet. All of these not so magnificent seven wilfully broke the rules regarding social interaction; rules that the whole country have been asked to comply with for the safety of others. I do not want to appear sanctimonious but why do they think they are any different to the rest of us?
Many suggest that because footballers live such a cosseted life that they think themselves above the law. None of these players are young, they are all in their mid-twenties upwards so they should know better than to break the rules in such flagrant way. That they were all caught out because of Instagram posts just adds to their collective naivety and irresponsibility. All the clubs involved have offered mealy-mouthed statements expressing their disappointment and stating how the matter would be dealt with internally with Tottenham reportedly fining their three players. One wonders whether that is really sufficient and shouldn’t any punishments be made public otherwise the feeling is that this is all being swept under the carpet and life goes on. Considering both Fulham and Manchester City have had to cancel fixtures because of multiple positive Covid tests, the involvement of Mitrovic and Mendy appears particularly inappropriate.
The response of the five clubs whose players were involved seems at odds with the way other transgressions have been dealt with, such as Oxford United who suspended two youth players for allegedly breaking Covid rules and are considering taking further action including the possibility of sacking the pair. In September last year, Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were caught inviting two local girls into their hotel and breaking the quarantine rules of the England squad’s bubble when away in Iceland. They were both consequently fined £1,360 by Icelandic police as well as being sent home by Gareth Southgate which meant them missing the Denmark match and they were dropped from the squad for the following three England matches as well. Foden and Greenwood were roundly castigated by their clubs and warned about their future behaviour.
From a Palace perspective there has been widespread condemnation from a fair proportion of fans towards the club captain Milivojevic, including calls for him to be stripped of the captaincy. Much of the anger was focused on the fact that he was allowed to play against Sheffield United and indeed captain the side just two days after his actions on New Year’s Eve. Roy Hodgson was asked his opinion in the post-match conference and did condemn him but with a caveat. “We’re very upset about it, it doesn’t do the image of the club any good, it doesn’t do Luka’s image any good, but we’ll take responsibility for that as I expect Luka to take responsibility for it. He hasn’t broken Premier League protocols per se because he’s negative and I believe the other player involved was negative as well. But that doesn’t matter, the fact is that there are government guidelines.”
It was important that Hodgson spoke about the situation and he was clearly and justifiably angry but there is the nagging feeling that his response does not go quite far enough. Others who have flouted the laws have been fined so surely there should be some sort of financial punishment, at the very least. Nobody gives a fig about Premier League protocols, what they care about is people obeying the clear guidelines set out to protect others during this most challenging of times.
Milivojevic also issued his own statement on 6th January: “I want to publicly apologise for my actions on New Year’s Eve,” Milivojevic wrote. “As captain of Crystal Palace Football Club I am fully aware that my responsibilities go beyond football, and that in this instance, I have let the fans, the club, my manager and teammates down. In what is a really difficult and challenging moment for everyone, I am truly grateful that I am able to continue to do the job I love and I do not take this for granted. I am very sorry to anyone who has been made to feel angry, hurt or upset by my actions. I am making a donation to the local NHS service to help them continue their incredible work in our community fighting this virus.”
Again it was key that he apologised and it is good that he has made a donation to the NHS. However, there is an overriding feeling that footballers are being treated differently to the rest of the population and that is unacceptable. While they may not be pampered nor prima donnas, the behaviour of these players coupled with the seeming lack of culpability and suitable punishment does leave them open to a brooding resentment.