He added that playing Premier League football takes priority over representing England below senior level, and suggests players may not be “brought up properly.” The second of these points is rather vague, but I suppose what is meant is using your high wages to live an enviable lifestyle and invariably being captured off your face on a night out. Recent images of Raheem Sterling inhaling laughing gas and Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish comatose in the middle of a Tenerife street spring to mind.
To anybody who has travelled to other countries and is able to think objectively, it should be obvious that a few drinks too many once in a while doesn’t restrict itself to any of the categories ‘English’, ‘young’ or ‘footballer’. Us Brits rightfully have a terrible reputation as drinkers, but don’t be fooled into thinking people from other countries don’t drink as much when enjoying themselves – they do, but for a number of reasons they handle their drink better. It sure makes for nice reading material, but once you come to terms with the impracticality of expecting professional athletes to keep to impeccable living standards 100% of the time, it’s easy not to leap to the fallacious logic that they care less about playing football because of it.
Just to provide some examples: a couple of years ago Cristiano Ronaldo was snapped allegedly leaving a nightclub in Lisbon at 7am after missing a Real Madrid match through injury.
A 2012 interview between Mesut Özil and the Bild newspaper in Germany, their version of a UK red-top and highly prolific in publishing celebrity gossip, documents the ex-Real Madrid man’s denial of accusations that he was spotted in a nightclub. His then manager José Mourinho had suggested football was not the priority of some of the members of his squad.
The point is that these two players, who have allegedly been engaging in actions that footballers are derided for when caught doing so, clearly haven’t suffered such a lack of hunger to prevent further accomplishments. Among other things, Ronaldo has won the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or (twice) and Özil the World Cup since these publications.
On the money side of things, football (you could say most sports, I suppose) is a unique industry in that players’ motivation for the game is questioned when they start earning big money. In every other profession I know, people move up the ladder after years of hard work and are praised for their hunger to succeed when a big pay rise comes along.
You could say that football is different as players become well-paid from a younger age. Fair point, but it’s a path that must begin much earlier than careers such as accountancy or law. An 18-year-old with no experience of competitive football can’t suddenly decide he wants to play professionally, and after some training find himself earning money for it within a few years. Like those who earn specific career qualifications, a player who signs a pro deal does so after years of hard work. Is he paid too much for it? Perhaps, but is it his fault? No.
The point is that players have to show desire to succeed – as well as being exceptionally good – to even make it to a lucrative contract. Whether they’re overpaid depends on your definition of the word, but football has always been a highly competitive industry, these days there is just more money about.
That does not restrict itself to English football either. Take Germany as an example; a bit of digging showed that Germany U21 captain Kevin Volland, playing his club football for Hoffenheim, earns an annual salary of $5.72million. That’s about £3.65million, and in weekly terms, in the region of £70k a week. That’s more than what Harry Kane and Ross Berkley of England are reportedly raking in.
Moreover, a youth team graduate at FC Bayern tends to earn about €1000 a week when turning pro – if there’s another job where you can earn that sort of money as a teenager, I’m yet to find it. In other words, even this kind of money for a youngster would be considered “hitting the money trail” as Lawrenson puts it, yet Germany hasn’t done too badly recently as a footballing nation.
In short, English players may earn on average more than their foreign counterparts, but there is no evidence that supports the idea that they become complacent because of this. If paying them at their current rate is overstating their ability, I’d rather place the onus on increasing their ability than decreasing their salary (which is also completely impractical).
What I will concede is that complacency, from my experience, does exist among young footballers. I’m unable to speak for any England internationals, but I see wherever I have played, where players are lucky to be paid at all (though rich benefactors do occasionally exist even that low down). A player at a previous club of mine, an outrageously talented full-back who was far too good for the level he was playing at, couldn’t resist putting up any post-match action shots of him on social media. After one game for his new club at a higher level, he alerted his Twitter following to the highlights video. His moments included a harmless shot from distance into the stands, and a harmlessly-floated cross into the opposition ‘keeper’s arms with no-one in the box.
His high opinion of himself as a player was mainly justified, but I genuinely believe he would put such things up for his mates to see because he thought they made him look like such a good footballer. He did this on other occasions too; make no mistake he wasn’t the only one, but I do suspect that people think being on an official video means something, and begin to ease off once they hit that milestone. And this guy wasn’t earning a penny from football at the time. I’d see the obsession with finding your name in newspaper articles and highlights videos as playing a greater role than inflated wages, in all honesty.
What frustrates me about this line of argument is that it’s such an easy go-to remark when discussing England’s shortcomings. We won’t suddenly become a tournament-winning football nation by changing our wage structure. Hyperbole such as Lawrenson’s “we would have won it by miles with the right players”, and shock value nonsense like “in my day apprentices only got £45 a week” from Ian Holloway in a Mirror article two years ago sounds good, but doesn’t go beyond the superficial surface of the problem.
It can be explained to players that appearing in YouTube videos or live on TV with millions watching doesn’t mean they’ve made it. But it should be based on the fact that football is a dynamic game in which players have to keep progressing, instead of withholding money from them. As mentioned, that’s a futile exercise anyway, as someone will always be willing to pay you the going rate if you’re good enough.
I will conclude by addressing the theory that the Premier League is more important than playing for England. It’s crazy to compare the two; naturally more time is invested into aiming for Premier League football, because the competition is running continually for roughly nine months a year, whereas you get a handful of international breaks a season. Put it this way – as a young player, focusing on doing well in the Premier League isn’t going to jeopardise your chances of being in the England setup. And any footballer who enjoys playing football is absolutely buzzing when playing at the highest level he can.
Not a very scientific statement I know, but that’s how us players tend to work.