By Paul Gardner
The further that soccer moves into the celebrity area, the more distasteful things get. And already I'm in trouble. That word "distasteful" that seemed to me, moments ago, to be exactly the word I wanted, now suddenly looks old-fashioned and rather naive.
Of course, what else, I'm thinking of the behavior of the England captain, John Terry. Having it off with the girlfriend of Wayne Bridge, one of his England teammates. And then trying to get a court order banning the revelation. Very nice.
But "distasteful" probably isn't the right word because it implies some sort of ethical (though not moral) judgment, and we don't make those judgments too often these days. Not in the celebrity world, anyway.
For once, I think it is worth looking back and pondering how things used to be. There certainly was a time, not all that long ago, when Terry's behavior would have meant his instant dismissal -- not only from the England captaincy, but from the England team.
That was, oh, maybe 40 years ago, when the word "honor" was always attached to representing one's country. Terry would have been judged to have sullied that honor, and I doubt anyone would have argued the point.
Consider: in 1950 a Stoke City player, Neil Franklin -- England's center back, in my opinion probably the best center back England has ever produced -- chose to accept the offer of the maverick pro league that was then starting up in Colombia. The money was exceptionally good -- much more than Franklin could earn in England. He went to Colombia, but the league, which did not have FIFA's approval, soon collapsed. Within a month the 28-year-old Franklin returned to England. To be shunned. He never played for England again, indeed never played First Division soccer again.
His behavior was widely considered to be "dishonorable" -- which in one way it was, for he had walked out on Stoke City, and the England selectors never forgave him for what they saw as his betrayal.
There were those -- I was one of them -- who thought the decision, to virtually finish the career of one of England's best players, was harsh, but at that time it no doubt represented majority opinion.
Returning to today, reading what is being written about Terry, about the great debate that has arisen about whether he is fit to wear the captain's armband, brings you into a different world. Whether it's better or worse, I know not.
But I do feel quite sure that Terry's behavior, though it might escape in today's terms being either distasteful or dishonorable, surely ought to be unacceptable.
The USA went through a similar situation 12 years ago, with John Harkes philandering with teammate Eric Wynalda's wife. Coach Steve Sampson threw Harkes off the team, and then did the honorable thing by keeping his mouth shut about the background.
But that was then. For Terry, his luck ought by now to have run out. He has been in plenty of trouble before, all of it well, I'll try the word "unsavory" this time. You add all the incidents up and you wonder what sort of character you're looking at.
That's important, because being captain is surely about character. Either that, or it's about nothing. Terry's character is evidently badly flawed -- so what's to discuss?
The England coach, who happens to be Italian, is Fabio Capello, from a country where the family -- and the values of the family -- are held in exalted esteem. But Capello is taking his time about this, as though much consideration must be given. To what, one wonders?
Well, to this: soccer is more important than any of that ethical b.s. about honor. What matters here is that England win the World Cup -- to satisfy all those superbly passionate fans, and to make all the marketing people happy by seeing, at last, a return on all the millions of dollars they have pumped into the England team over the past decade.
That's all. Terry? Is he a coarse drunk who's been involved in public brawls, who's been engaged in dubious financial deals, who cheats on his wife with another player's girlfriend? Irrelevant, all of it. Maybe he has to stay as captain because there's no other suitable candidate. But whatever happens, this team, this collection of celebrity millionaires, must not be upset.
If Terry remains the England captain, then we know that the position -- which used to be the highest honor the game could offer -- has now been dragged through the mire, and requires no particularly admirable personal qualities at all. Just the ability to play soccer well -- which, overlooking a cynical elbow here and a crude body block there, Terry can certainly do.