Players at the very top level have the right to earn what they do.
Nicklas Bendtner is an exhausted joke among the Arsenal fans. Once said to be a gifted teenager, the Danish striker is now a washed-up 26-year-old who is set to leave the Emirates Stadium for good in the summer.
To many, he is symptomatic of the main problem that football has been facing since the advent of the Premier League in the early 1990s: unjustified astronomical salaries. A largely average footballer who earns more in a week than what many people take years to make, Bendtner can be perceived as the archetypical sportsman who gets paid to be mediocre.
Yet, his comments made back in February 2011 are worth pondering upon. He justified his wages, then reported to be £50,000 a week, by claiming that he deserves them because he entertains people, just as movie stars do.
‘I am in the football business and, at the highest level, where Arsenal are, football is first-class entertainment’, he said at the time. ‘So it is wrong to compare my salary to the salary of businessmen – compare it to movie actors instead.
‘I would lie, though, if I said I didn’t enjoy the money I earn in football. I think we spend an incredible amount of time, energy and focus on our football career, because when we are not training or playing matches we still have to live for football.
‘It is always fair to ask whether the players are worth the incredible amounts of money we earn and ask whether we earn too much. I believe we must be worth our salaries because that is how the mechanisms of the society works. As long as I work as hard as I can, I believe I am worth what is coming my way.
‘There is a price to pay as well for us players and, personally, I think I pay a big price with my body, my time and with never being able to have privacy when I am out and around other people. Understand me correctly, I do not complain about that. It’s a natural part of being a professional footballer, but there is definitely a price to pay, when, for example, you can’t go out to eat in a restaurant with your girlfriend without having people chasing you’.
The words came from Bendtner and could be dismissed right away thanks to his modest talent as a footballer, but are they really far-fetched?
Whether you like it or not, football, and sport by extension, is in many ways an entertainment business. Sport is transcendental, but it also aims to entertain people. Would you, as a neutral, sit through a game between two Conference Premier teams when you could watch El Clasico or Manchester United against Liverpool? As a neutral, would you watch Sunderland against Hull City when the North London derby is taking place at the same place? And why would you prefer to watch the big clubs or the big teams, if you are a neutral? Because you want to be entertained.
As much as we would like to moan at Emile Heskey for failing to control an easy pass or laugh at David James for yet another howler, the stark, naked truth is that we cannot do what they do. Whether we are at the stands, in the press room or watching at home, we do not (or did not) have the skills needed to play football at a professional level. Otherwise, we would be them.
Footballers – and sportsmen – are an elite group of people who can be classed as highly skilled labourers – they can do what the normal man at the stands cannot. It is a case of supply and demand. Just like a top-class surgeon or a gifted actor, they are people with ‘special talent’. Of course, whether you consider the ability to act or play football as ‘special’ is up to you.
The problem with huge wages lies in making young people too rich too soon and paying too much to players who are actually average and of no good. There are some who know that they are not really good enough and are happy to stay on the bench. After all, whether they make zero appearance in a season or play 50 matches, they are still contractually bound to get paid. Not every footballer is like that, but you can bet that there are some.
Stories such as a 20-year-old Saido Berahino using legal high in his car do not help in endearing footballers to the public either. If anything, they reinforce the belief that footballers, especially the young ones, take everything for granted and have an easy life.
Perhaps they do – after all, if you become a millionaire after working for a few years, then you should have an easy life. Yet, it would be foolhardy to deny that they did not have to work hard for it. The players we see glossing on the magazine covers or on television are just a small fraction who could actually make it big – there are thousands who have tried and failed. Moreover, footballers have a relatively short career – 10 to 15 years and then they have to retire.
And there are many who have made it big and have remembered their roots. Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and others have all done their bit to help charities. Many of them were born poor but reached for the stars despite the odds. Ever Banega once claimed that his family were so poor that they “practically ate mud”, Luis Suarez once failed to attend a practice match because he did not have shoes to wear and Diego Maradona’s family could not afford to buy him a football.
Yet, all these players have reached the top of their profession by hard work and with determination. Should we moan how much money they make by just kicking a ball around once a week, or should we try to get inspired by them and work hard in our own lives?
Answers on a postcard, please.