Monday, 3 October 2011

Is football all about the players? Part 1 of 2

This week sees some of world football's top minds and most powerful decision makers come together at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge for the Leaders In Football summit. There are a number of intriguing talks on the agenda, with referee Pierluigi Collina, AS Roma president Tom DiBenedetto and the Secretary General of Qatar 2022 (that talk might be fun) among the speakers on various panel discussions.

However, it was the last talk of the two-day agenda that most caught my eye. Somewhat flippantly titled "It's the players that matter, stupid", it features a panel consisting of Jamie Carragher, Owen Hargreaves and Fabio Cannavaro.

"At the top level," says the blurb, "players and their coaches work under the most intense pressure in an environment where job security, even with a lengthy contract, often seems non-existent. Performances are assessed daily, fairly and unfairly by public and media alike as well as by employers. So what is it really like today at the sharp end of football under such scrutiny? And what do today’s heroes think will be tomorrow’s challenges?"

My immediate reaction to this is that I'd happily be under that sort of scrutiny if I was getting paid £80,000 a week (or £4.16 million pa). You can call me whatever you want for that sort of money. To my face. I'm pretty sure I'll get over it.

But is this attitude an overly dismissive one? Should we be more considerate to the pressure players are under in modern football, and consider the difficulties of taking to the field in peak mental and physical condition?

You imagine that Carragher – noted as one of the deeper thinkers currently playing the game, and a man who will surely make a decent fist of management when he hangs up his boots – will be quite forthright when he takes the mic. Players at the top level are fantastically rewarded for the job they do, and as a result have a duty to stay focused on helping their team while keeping themselves in prime physical condition. Club management will guide them along the way, but ultimately the player must push himself in trying to achieve his and the team's goals. Certainly it will be a surprise should such an uncompromising player pander for any sympathy.

Hargreaves could be a different story. His terrible luck with injuries must have pushed his mental strength to its very limit. How does it feel when every time you take to the field, you know the crowd and press are just waiting for the next innocuous challenge that puts you on the sidelines for another period of months. It will be fascinating to see what Hargreaves has to say about the last few years of his career. Does he think it's fair that the media have scrutinised his fitness so closely or has that just increased the mental anguish of being on the sidelines? Did it make him stronger or push him closer to thoughts of retirement?

As a World Cup-winning captain, Cannavaro reached the very peak of the game. He was also Fifa's World Player of the Year in 2006. Recently retired after a short spell playing in Dubai, he should be able to offer an interesting overseas perspective on life at the pinnacle of game. The English media are renowned for their continual hunger for stories, but Cannavaro has played for several top Italian sides as well as Real Madrid, so you'd imagine he knows what pressure is better than most. Certainly his time at Madrid would have been an eye-opening experience in terms of the club's intense relationship with the press.

So what will we learn from the panel? That footballers are sublimely gifted and should be protected from stresses and strains that could detract from their performance at all costs? Or will they instead concede that footballers at the highest level are handsomely paid and should "man up" and get on with doing something most people would dream to do? How do they see the nature of their job changing in years to come? It promises to be a fascinating discussion and one I'll report back on later in the week. (EDIT: make that 'later in the month'!)

In the meantime, do feel free to give your opinion on whether it is fair that footballers are placed under so much scrutiny today.

Edit 4/10/11: The Leaders In Football website has updated it's programme this week, with the panel now set to feature Ray Wilkins instead of Hargreaves. Not sure if that's definite or not; conference line-ups often seem to fluctuate until the last minute. Personally, I don't think this line-up will be quite as interesting as two current players and one recently retired World Cup winner, but we shall see. Also, I wonder why Hargreaves is no longer available?


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