Everyone knows the Albert Camus quote about football. It is used to justify the game's inherent goodness as it conjures a hopelessly romantic idea that there exists a playing field where all men are equal and only wit, skill, invention and passion can separate the wheat from the chaff. It tells us that together we are more important than we are alone. Simply enough, he said: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man, I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA [his football club].”
Maybe we read too much into this quote and attribute too much to the great man in his thoughts on the game. It is often used to make us look or sound intelligent as we bare the legend on a t-shirt or quote it in a blog, but it is understandable that football fans today would want to bask in the reflected warmth of an idea of the game as an inherently moral struggle, rising above the malignant pettiness and irrationality of man and the cloying, grabbing hands of those who seek to use the game for their own ends.
But does this make sense at all anymore? When the BZ splashed their salacious revelations about the “Hertha Lolita Affair” onto their front cover last week the city got bogged down in a debate from both sides of the moral spectrum. No one was talking about the club's excellent start to the season anymore, because we were all too interested in who it was, what had they done, and what should be done about it.
Because (contradicting the words of the high priest of German footballing philosophy, Sepp Herberger) the ball is no longer round. Football in the 21st Century is celebrity, celebrity is news, and news is whatever sells the most papers, gets the most hits or sparks the most inane buzzwords that trend for more than the attention span of a fruit fly. And this is where the waters of the argument get increasingly murky, where the noise of the chatter gets so overwhelming that it is hard to tell where one argument ends and the corresponding one begins.
The BZ came out fighting in the wake of an onslaught of opprobrium from some sections of the public and press, but not least from Hertha’s crack team of lawyers. They said that it was in the public’s interest to know what their heroes were getting up to. They said that they had taken all the steps to ensure that they hadn’t broken the law and (here is where it all gets a bit too Clintonian) that they had merely said sex and not sexual intercourse had taken place. They said that they believed they had merely tried to shine a light into the murkier side of the game that corrupts our youth, threatens our daughters and is running rampant in the dressing rooms of some of the world's most revered institutions.
And most of these arguments could have stood up pretty well were it not for the photographs of a hotpants clad, 16-year-old bottom on the front cover of the paper taking up more space than the revelations themselves, undermining all of the hand wringing and brow tugging that accompanied them. Stories of our perceived moral decline always have and always will sell papers, but they will always sell more if they are gratuitously illustrated too.
And herein lies the problem. Where there is certainly an argument to say that young, influential men abusing their status and power is newsworthy, is it actually news? Who are we (who, after all, buy these papers, thus perpetuating the endless circle of inane gossip) to base our moral judgements on a tabloid editorial without knowing all of the facts, from either side?
It is an unfortunate fact that we expect our sportsmen to be our moral compasses, while the story of the player who is true to his wife and nice to his kids won’t ever make it onto the front page. It is an unfortunate fact that while the debate about the freedom of the press in the face of government controlled abuses is becoming ever more vital, but yet we still allow ourselves to be bogged down in debating whether or not a footballer sending a picture of his semi to a young woman is right or not. For the record, I think it is not, but still this somewhat misses the point.
Camus was talking about football in a different time when he derived his moral code from the game. But he was also talking about it as an abstract concept. I believe, as Camus did, that football can be a force for good, and I believe that, at the same time, it is a mirror image of society at large, for good or ill. It is in here somewhere that the crux of the argument about the “Lolita” story lies, but for now I would suggest that the constantly swirling polar opposites of the deification or the demonisation of footballers is a red herring.
The game is at its most beautiful when it works as a metaphor, illustrating good versus evil or right versus wrong, but sometimes, when looking for one’s moral arbiters, it is probably best, simply, to start with oneself.