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'Nowadays, footballers stop being normal people from the age of 11 or 12'

Author Simon Kuper is our guest on this week’s episode of Behind the Lines.

Lionel Messi, pictured on his debut for Barcelona in 2005.
Lionel Messi, pictured on his debut for Barcelona in 2005.
Image: Imago/PA Images

CELEBRITY, WROTE JOHN Updike, is a mask that eats into the face.

But who fits the mask?

Celebrity is a condition of today’s elite footballers, and that status was among the topics of conversation on this week’s episode of Behind the Lines with author and Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. 

(Behind the Lines is exclusively available to members of The42. Each episode features a lengthy interview with a writer about their career and their favourite pieces of sportswriting, so for access to a 60-episode back catalogue, head over to members.the42.ie.) 

Among Simon’s most formative books was Eamon Dunphy’s famous Only A Game?, Dunphy’s unsentimental and unflinching diary of the 1973/74 season as a player at Millwall. 

If other books taught Kuper about the game, Dunphy’s diary taught him about its players. 

“I was a kid when I first read it, and for me footballers were superheroes. But Dunphy said ‘No, footballers are people. We’re complicated and three-dimensional people like everyone else.’

“This was a shock to me. I still see it with football fans today: they talk about the likes of Mourinho or Paul Pogba as if they are a different species to us; they see them as villains or Superman, not people. Dunphy taught me to always understand the athlete as a person, with all the complexity that comes with that.”

Simon saw the contrary to this a few years ago, when his PSG-mad sons spotted Edinson Cavani coming out of the Parc Des Princes and surrounded his sports car.  ”They were talking about him as if he wasn’t there.” 

This, then, is the territory that goes with the money and the glamour of being an elite footballer. Fame usually becomes a kind of compromise. 

“I’ve written a new book about FC Barcelona – it should be out in September – and one of the things I talk about is how footballers live. 

“Barcelona have quite a lot of psychologists working there and one woman I spoke to said that it dehumanises them.

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“But, she said, it’s not the footballers necessarily who dehumanise themselves, but the fans who dehumanise the footballers. When, for example, a footballer is in a restaurant with his family, and 15 people come up at different points to take a selfie with him, these people aren’t really thinking ‘He is a person who wants to have a meal for his family like we all do’, they think, ‘It’s Cavani!’

“The footballer learns to distrust, fear and see as irritating, fans, as fans are an irritant. People ask why footballers close themselves off? When Wayne Rooney went to the supermarket, someone would tell him he’s a traitor for leaving Everton, so he stopped going to the supermarket.

“Footballers learn how to detach from the rest of the world and live in this bubble where they only meet other celebrities: when they go to a nightclub there’s security around them. They live in a completely separated environment. It’s not necessarily what they want, but it is what is forced on them. 

“It’s become much worse since the smartphone. If you’re on a night out with a footballer now, I’m told, the player’s entourage will confiscate your smartphone and will give it back to you at the end of the evening.” 

Not all footballers have detached themselves from the world they were once part of: most notably Marcus Rashford. 

“Footballers nowadays stop being normal people when they are very young, when they are about 11 or 12 when they are brought to an Academy. That’s when they are separated, and it’s much earlier than it was even in Rooney’s generation.

“Their only contact with normal life is until the age of 11, and their family and friends until then. But even those people begin to treat them differently. This goes back a long time: Geoff Hurst said after his hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final his parents began treating him as a celebrity. Even the relationship with his parents was changed by that. 

“What I find most admirable about Rashford – I think what he has done is magnificent – is that he has continued to think about the rest of the world. Footballers are told from the age of 11, ‘No, don’t worry about anything. Don’t worry about money or politics, as that will alienate some of your fans and will make it harder to get sponsorship. Don’t think about anything except football. All we want is for you to become a football genius and make a lot of money for your family and your agent. We will take care of the rest.’ 

“So you get a situation like Messi’s, who became the family breadwinner aged 13. Messi was a tax dodger doing illegal tax evasion but he didn’t know it himself. Nobody said to him, ‘Leo, what do you think about this tax arrangement?’ They just say, ‘You play football, we’ll take care of the money.’”

Listen to the full conversation by subscribing at members.the42.ie.

- Originally published at 07.00

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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