Celebrity culture and sporting prowess are two branches that only in England could have become intertwined. In the case of the Chelsea captain John Terry, who is facing trial on 9 July for racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, it is the root of something very ugly indeed. Accused of racism by a member of the public after a YouTube clip went viral, the hysteria surrounding the case says as much about celebrity culture as it does about racism in football. Despite not wanting to defend Terry or any incident of racist or bigoted behaviour, a very dangerous precedent has been set where individuals can be thrown in court on accusations made not by the individual concerned but someone potentially sitting on a computer in Papua New Guinea.
With Terry losing the England captaincy because of these accusations, the hype surrounding the case also exposes a glib streak running through English popular culture. As football journalism in England is notorious for focusing on personalities and stories unlike in Spain or Italy where the emphasis is on sporting matters. In Spain journalists are even allowed to watch training and with this privilege comes the honour of improving their own knowledge of the game. As a result their coverage of football revolves around sporting excellence and not the personal lives of players.
Only in England could a journeyman footballer such as Joey Barton receive such press attention. Best known for being jailed for attacking a Liverpool teenager in May 2008, the notoriety surrounding the QPR player has been fuelled by his Twitter account. With over a million followers, the player bristles with self-righteous indignation and has a narcissistic desire for attention and thus provides scandal hungry English journalists easy headlines on a near daily basis. With the notable exception of Stan Bowles and Les Ferdinand, not many QPR players have attracted so much press attention as the former Newcastle play maker. However, Barton’s guttersnipe opinions and propensity to get into online feuds with journalists and fans has generated a level of hysteria that belies his achievements in the game.
Playing for a series of marginal clubs with no history of winning trophies, Barton has no medals to his name after a decade playing football. Alas the sporting culture in England is now all about being somebody rather than what you have achieved. Twitter only further accelerates a culture of gossip and spin allowing a narcissist such as Barton a global platform to broadcast his views. Already some players appear more pleased with the number of followers they have than trophies, where previously it had been medals and caps that were the benchmarks of success. Would for example a moderately talented Spanish player who takes the corners and free kicks for a minnow club like Getafe receive front page coverage in Spain?
As mediocre players such as Joey Barton try to establish new careers for themselves as ‘brands’, it will be fascinating to watch the English and Spanish sides at the Euro 2012 finals. Not just for their contrasting style of play but for their dignity and approach to the game. No one doubts that Spain are by far the better side. As the majesty of football is on the field of play and that is where it should remain too.