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In Defence of Football: What the Olympics Can Learn From the Beautiful Game

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Every four years the pain of the Olympic hangover is cured by the popular pastime of football-bashing as the extraordinary achievements and acts of sportsmanship of Olympians is compared to the direct opposites attributed to footballers. London 2012 has proven to be no exception.

In fact, the criticism aimed at football from expert sports commentators to the man and woman in the street have been quite hurtful and blind, and although I neither claim to be an expert sports commentator nor a man (nor a woman) in the street, I think football deserves a defence of these widespread and un-justified criticisms.

James Lawton in the Independent compared the "thrilling competitive values and so many moments of unforgettable grace" with the "revulsion" of "money-drenched" football which provokes a "weary resignation." Michael Owen predicted this onslaught of criticism, explaining how he had turned to his wife whilst watching the Olympics and said: "just you watch footballers get hammered once this is over."

My defence of football from this entourage of Olympic-related attacks, and to a lesser extent of footballers themselves, centres around inclusivity: it is the most popular sport in the UK, it attracts people from all parts of society whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female (as London 2012 showed), northern or southern, and it is popular among all religions and races of multicultural Britain. I cannot think of any of the Olympic sports that GB excelled in this summer, nor for that matter any other sport, which can rival football in terms of social inclusiveness.

First of all, despite all the moaning that football was the least attractive Olympic sport and that football was an un-welcome member of the Olympic movement, the gold medal match that saw Mexico stun Brazil 2-1 at Wembley last Saturday was the event that attracted the largest paid attendance of London 2012. You can argue all you want about the incredibly high demand for athletics tickets, but ultimately, facts don't lie and it is incredible that 86,162 people turned up to a match between two countries from the other side of the Atlantic.

These figures were not exceptions to the rule as large crowds were seen throughout the men's and women's tournaments, which drew total attendances of over two million. And London can be proud of these record-breaking numbers, especially with the record attendance of 80,203 at the women's gold medal match, which shows how football is offering an increasingly tangible route towards gender equality in sport that remains an embarrassing number of years behind the rest of society.

These numbers boost the popularity, the support and the economic impact of the Olympics. For the 2012 Games, it presented the only chance for people living outside of the prosperous South of England to experience the Olympics as Glasgow, Cardiff, Newcastle, Manchester and Coventry played host to Olympic football matches. It was football which brought the Olympics to Geordies, Mancunians, Brummies, Glaswegians and the Welsh and many more who found it much cheaper to travel to one of the football venues than a hefty train ticket to the capital.

And this inclusive quality that football offered London 2012 is the value that football possesses more than any other sport. Football is the simplest game that anyone with a ball and four jumpers can play, but it is also a sport that in our country encompasses all sectors of society, both in terms of participants and supporters. Whether it be religion, income, race or nationality, the beautiful game may divide people, but it certainly doesn't exclude people along those lines. And although its justified criticisms regarding homophobic and gender discrimination, football is making very tangible progress towards making it truly welcoming to all.

Now, can we say that the same degree of inclusivity exists in the Olympic sports in which people have been hailing the 'true' Olympic values and heroic achievements that will 'inspire a generation'? No. Once you look into the sports in which Team GB have won the most medals, it becomes rather embarrassing to discover that these sports are dominated by the white and wealthy of British society.

The top two sports in the GB medal table with nine medals each were cycling and rowing, which also happen to be two of the most expensive sports to participate in. All of these medallists happened to be white. And these two sports also happen to be the top two recipients of UK Sport funding prior to 2012 with a combined funding revenue of £53.331m.

Critics may point to the fact that third and fourth in the GB medal table was athletics and boxing respectively, which, along with taekwondo, boasted all seven of the non-white 2012 GB medallists. Yet sitting alongside athletics and boxing in the medal table are equestrian and sailing, each with five medals and needless to say these are sports that stink of inequality and exclusivity.

Whilst we must credit boxing and athletics for their more socially inclusive culture, their exceptions to the norm of 2012 GB medal winners only serve to reinforce my argument that underneath the almost exclusively positive, patriotic rhetoric of GB's Olympic success lies a horrifying truth: you are much more likely to win an Olympic medal if you are wealthy and white.

And there is even more hard factual evidence to back up my argument. Of all GB medal winners at 2012, 37% of them went to a private school, compared to 7% nationally. For rowing, that figure rises above 50%, and whilst many high performing athletes receive bursaries to attend fee-paying schools, the fact remains that you are more likely to become an Olympic champion if you attend a private school.
For those who claim the figures are distorted because of the high number of sporting elites who are offered bursaries, they are people who obviously do not strive for a society which provides genuine equality of opportunity from the grassroots level, and therefore they are people who deny the core Olympic value of equality, of using sport as a means to "understand each other despite any differences."

I have read and listened to many experts, from Matthew Said to Joey Barton, on how they believe football can learn from this summer's Olympic experience. And I completely agree that football can and should learn many valuable lessons from London 2012, and that is the reason why football players and officials will meet in Manchester next month to discuss these lessons. But the learning process must be seen as a two-way process: we must not be so blind to the many positives that the beautiful game gives us in terms of social inclusiveness and equality of opportunities; a value that GB's most prominent Olympic sports would do well to learn from themselves.

So I urge people to detach themselves for one minute from automatically turning to the prejudicial habit of lambasting football as they struggle to cope with the absence of a mesmerising Claire Balding, a weeping John Inverdale and the magical Sue Barker on their TV screens, and ask themselves why football continues to attract such a more comprehensive cross-section of British society than any rowing regatta or equestrian extravaganza ever will.

Until these valuable lessons of social inclusiveness are taken seriously at the grassroots level, the vast majority of British Olympic sports will never be able to say they are truly representative of British society.