In Defence Of Football

19/08/2012 10:43 BST | Updated 17/10/2012 10:12 BST

The Olympics were magnificent. They proved that, when we put our mind to it, we can put on the best show on the planet. As I predicted just before the Games started, all of the pessimists and negativists were proven wrong, arguing that, "this is the greatest showcase for the UK in my lifetime and I've got little doubt that it's going to be a triumph." A triumph it certainly was. And we should all be very proud of the Olympics we hosted.

Now the Meldrews have shifted their target. They suggest that the success of the Olympics shows how terrible football is. James Lawton wrote a column entitled, "Let's hope our offensive, overpaid footballers have been watching the Games." The Sun, which must have sold millions of copies on the back of football, complained that "vile football" was back. And Twitter was abuzz with new found sports fans comparing the Corinthian spirit of successful Olympians with the mercenary worldview of footballers.

Let's hold on a second before using the Olympic torch as a stick with which to beat our national winter game. I would admit that our footballers failed to fire against Italy in the European Championship quarter final, the behaviour of some footballers goes beyond the pale and, yes, there's a big discussion to be had about the way that football is run both in the UK and at an international level. As Henry Winter said in a brilliant column this week, there is, of course, much that footballers could learn from Olympians.

But we shouldn't forget that football provides joy to millions, not just in the UK, but around the world. Football is so big not because it has been forced on us, it is big because people love it. And it is popular because it provides so many moments of excitement, beauty and passion (as a Sunderland fan, I'd accept that some matches don't provide any of those things). Have people already forgotten the pulsating finish to last season's Premiership campaign? Fans from around the country will have stories of triumph and despair to tell from their own club's experience.

In our rush to praise London 2012, we shouldn't forget that club football and the Premier League is one of our great national triumphs. The Premier League is, by far, the biggest and the best domestic league competition on the planet. Over 13 million people attended Premier League fixtures last season. The Premier League is broadcast to 212 countries, with a total global audience of almost 5 billion. We ought to be celebrating the success of English club football, rather than denigrating its achievements.

It's also not fair to compare the achievements and the behaviour of our footballers, with that of our Olympians. As both Nick Wigmore and Raj Chande have pointed out, our footballers are often the victims of their sport's success. They face all year round scrutiny from both the press and their own supporters, while Olympians have benefitted because we know so little about them.

Let's not pretend that football is utterly tarnished and Olympians are squeaky clean. The female shot put champion was stripped of her title for failing a drugs test, the Chinese and Korean badminton players battled to see who could lose in a most unconvincing fashion and one of our cyclists admitted to falling off his bike deliberately because of a poor start? Indeed, until recently, both sprinting and road cycling have laboured under the enormous cloud of past drug scandals.

We are right to lionise Olympians, but we should think twice before comparing their noble endeavours to the antics of "diving footballers."

The other not so subtle distinction between Olympians and footballers is probably the most insidious and certainly the most offensive. You hear people saying on Twitter things like, "why can't our footballers be as articulate as our rowers?" This, of course, ignores the fact that there are many articulate footballers, but many critics simply refuse to acknowledge them. You can take the 'Countdown' experience of Clarke Carlisle, the writing of Graeme Le Saux or almost every utterance of Niall Quinn as examples of this.

It also ignores the fact that many of these 'articulate' voices came from well-off backgrounds and were often Oxbridge educated, whereas many footballers come from poorer backgrounds and left formal education at 16. There's more than a bit of snobbery about the comparison of footballers with some Olympians, almost harking back to the gentlemen and players nonsense that held back sport in this country for years. It's also worth remembering that hardly anybody in the commentariat raised a murmur of protest when football fans were 'kettled' by the Police for years, but Police "kettling" of middle class students became a major commentariat cause celebre after the tuition fee protests last year.

We're right to celebrate the most amazing few weeks of sport that most of us can remember. Some great British heroes, from Mo Farah to Charlotte Dujardin were taken to the nation's heart. London 2012 was absolutely unforgettable. But we shouldn't use their success to have a go at football or footballers. Whatever its critics might say, football remains immensely popular and to millions of fans, across the country and throughout the world, it remains the "beautiful game."