Sunderland fans travelling to Molineux in December may be asked to participate in a protest of sorts against the sanitizing of the modern game organised by the Wolverhampton based 'Take Back The Game' group. Although not confirmed, that particular match has been touted as it takes place in front of the Sky TV cameras, and represents the growing discontent amongst football fans regarding the direction of the game in the 21st century.
It is a discontent that I personally very much share. Frankly extortionate ticket pricing, the dates of games for which fans have to travel hundreds of miles to attend being changed at short notice, the league table becoming a yearly battle of balance sheets rather than football and the likes of Ian Ayre trying to push the already largely irrelevant also-rans even further out of contention has left many, if not most, fans feeling more disconnected with the game than ever before.
It must be said, however, that Sunday's Manchester derby was a rare moment in the recent history of English football where viewers all over the world were sat aghast at what they were witnessing. We all knew that City had forged a top class side, but to go to Old Trafford and demolish the Champions in the manner they did was incredible. Yet still, amidst the breathtaking spectacle, I couldn't help but feel football slip that little further from my grasp.
If there is one current Premier League player who ignites the imagination of fans and sums up why we love our game, then it is Mario Balotelli. He is daft, he is entertaining, and he is brilliantly inexplicable, flickering seamlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous without warning. He is an irresistibly captivating character. The weekend started with him setting his own house alight when he, quite intentionally, lit fireworks inside it. It was the kind of Frank Spencerism that has come do define him. When he scored the all important opener the following day, the usually brooding Italian wormed his way into our hearts even more by lifting his shirt to reveal the question 'why always me?' beneath it. The nation chuckled, and muttered their answer 'don't ever change Mario'.
Yet there seems no space for chuckling and light-hearted frivolities in football any more. It is serious money, so that makes it serious business, apparently. Wait, what? Fans are laughing? Enjoying themselves? They are feeling some kind of connection with a footballer, sharing a giggle, and threatening to relate to him? No, can't be having that. Book the player. Nip it in the bud. That'll teach him.
The official FIFA laws of the game state:
Players must not reveal undergarments showing slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements.
While it is permissible for a player to demonstrate his joy when a goal has been scored, the celebration must not be excessive. Reasonable celebrations are allowed, but the practice of choreographed celebrations is not to be encouraged when it results in excessive time-wasting and referees are instructed to intervene in such cases.
A player must be cautioned if:
• in the opinion of the referee, he makes gestures which are provocative,
derisory or inﬂammatory
• he climbs on to a perimeter fence to celebrate a goal being scored
• he removes his shirt or covers his head with his shirt
• he covers his head or face with a mask or other similar item
Read into that what you will. I have little beef with Mark Clattenburg. He applied the rules of game, as his his obligation. But just what purpose does the rule serve? Well, given that revealing a message under your shirt is not listed in the cautionable offences, if I were a cynic I'd suggest the rule exists to protect sponsors from seeing the logo they have paid a fortune to plaster over the world's TVs lifted out of view at such a lucrative time. I certainly fail to see how Balotelli's message, or indeed the simple West Bromwich Albion crest that Paul Scharner was booked for revealing, could be considered 'excessive' in any way, nor was there risk of it inciting a crowd.
But whatever the reason for the ludicrous rule, all it really serves to achieve is to make the fans feel more and more detached from their game. Supporters can no longer relate to players in a professional capacity. As highlighted by a daily perusal of Michael Owen's twitter account, the every-day concerns of the modern footballer are about as far removed as they can be from those of the common man. There is no reason fans and players can't connect on a personal level, though. In fact, the game is greatly enhanced for all when that is allowed to happen.
My favourite season as a Sunderland fan by quite some considerable distance was when Roy Keane created a juggernaut that romped its way from nowhere to winning the Championship. It wasn't the best Sunderland team I have ever seen, or the most exciting, but it was the most tangible connection I ever felt with the players representing my club. I remember standing in the away end at Pride Park in Keane's first game in charge when Ross Wallace banged home the winner and ran off the length of the away end sans shirt. There he was, just another young lad overcome with excitement and passion in amongst thousands of others. There was a connection. An invitation offered to know the man behind the player. But modern football punishes personality, and he trudged back towards the half way line with a yellow card fresh in the memory.
It would be naive to not understand and acknowledge the importance of money in our game these days. The mass appeal to investors of the Premier League is what keeps our game competitive in Europe and allows us to watch our football in the kind of safe environment which would have been unthinkable not that long ago. But should we have to sacrifice everything for it? Can there not be a little room found for harmless expressions of personality and individuality? There most certainly should be.