The message needs to get through to young white males that they may indeed become footballers; they may indeed earn gigabucks like Becks – though the chances are of course that they will not. But even if they did, they would be far better off with a smattering of the education of our continental rivals.
We should blow the whistle on football
But what can you do? wailed the man at the end of my harangue. What can you do when the lads just want to be David Beckham?
I knew what he meant. Here we all are, having a collective fit about male underachievement in schools. We spend millions trying to persuade adolescent boys that they should think of themselves as university material. We launch feeble attempts at social engineering by discriminating against the children of university-educated parents; and yet in spite of all our efforts we only have 13.1 per cent of children from low-participation areas who make it to university – compared with 43 per cent across the nation as a whole.
It is not just that they don’t much aspire to go to university; in some cases they think the whole idea is positively sissy, especially since, as my interlocutor put it, “they look at David Beckham, and they see he’s earning tens of thousands a week, and they think, hey, what’s the point of all this education?”
They think they can have Posh and the Porsche and the swish pad in Cheshire; and of course they can’t, or at least they can’t unless they happen to be the one in 10 million who has the gifts of banana-booted demigod.
So then slowly their fantasies dissolve, and they find that their educational opportunities have been frittered away, and they drift on, who knows, to become part of the number one problem facing our country.
They join the great and growing ranks of the excluded white males; the males who are beaten ever more hollow by the girls in exams, the males whose marriage credentials look ever more paltry to the go-ahead girls who now make up 59 per cent of university undergraduates, and no wonder so many males in this group are turning to crime, and no wonder, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies yesterday revealed, the gap between rich and poor is growing.
There has been a 40 per cent increase, under this Labour government, in the number of 16- to 18-year-olds who are neither in education, employment or training; and it is these characters who are ever more likely to be associated with violence, thuggery and general incivility.
We have taken away the old ladder of social mobility, the academic selection that used to form a way out for the bright children of poor families, and like Brazilian street children they have nothing but the delusive hope of footballing success – a delusion that is particularly cruel, since it seems to offer the prospect of fantastic personal wealth without any academic qualifications whatever.
It is precisely because so many of our young males have such reverence for football, and identify with footballers, that we need to think anew about the relationship between English football and education, and it is time, as a nation, that we faced a horrendous truth. We just don’t seem to be much good. We weren’t much good in the World Cup, and we have just had an agonising draw against Israel. For all I know, by the time you read this we will have been thrashed by Andorra, and if manager Steve McClaren keeps his current form, we can expect a run of torrid goalless draws against San Marino, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Luxembourg.
It is time, moreover, that we addressed the crisis, and faced the appalling possibility that there is a correlation between our footballing achievements and our general attitudes to education. Of course this is a nation already suspicious of intellectuals, and there is nothing more hilarious and deplorable than a swot on the pitch.
You remember how poor old Graeme Le Saux used to be accused of being gay, just because he sounded vaguely educated. Then think of the educational attainments of Wayne Rooney, or Robbie Fowler, and contrast them with some of the comparative brainboxes from other footballing countries.
One might mention Albert Camus, who in addition to his status as a top French writer and existentialist was an international goalie for Algeria. Then there is the late Pope John Paul II, who presumably employed the hand of God to keep goal for Wadowice.
Even if you exclude Eric Cantona, who claims to be a philosopher because of his oracular remarks about seagulls and sardines, foreign teams are littered with people who could be classed as intellectuals, at least by UK standards.
There was Socrates, the supremely gifted Brazilian midfielder who was also a doctor, and Simen Agdestein, a chess grand master by the age of 18 and former Norwegian international, and Fabio Pecchia, a registered accountant who plays for Bologna, and Slaven Bilic, a lawyer, linguist and former Everton defender.
Is it any wonder that two of England’s most successful teams have been unable to recruit from the pool of former footballers that make up English managerial talent, and gone for Wenger and Mourinho?
Take the smooth-talking effortlessness of Thierry Henry’s English, and contrast it with David Beckham’s attempts to speak Spanish.
Wherever you look in English football, there are fewer foreign linguists, fewer degree holders and fewer bourgeois professionals than in many of the teams that give us such trouble; and that is important, because these footballers are our male children’s heroes, their role models. The message needs to get through to young white males that they may indeed become footballers; they may indeed earn gigabucks like Becks – though the chances are of course that they will not. But even if they did, they would be far better off with a smattering of the education of our continental rivals.
In English football you are called Prof if you have two GCSEs; no wonder we are outwitted on the pitch.
Of course you don’t have to be academically bright to be good at football. But it might just help transform the attitudes of young males to education, if they looked at the foreign example, and saw that being smart – and being rated smart – was no barrier to success in the beautiful game.
If poor Steve McClaren should fail again, I am told that he could be replaced by one Steve Coppell, currently with Reading, who once started an economics degree at Liverpool.
Now there’s a role model. Let’s encourage the academic aspirations of young white males – and let’s stop the tragic mistake of pretending football is a game for dunces.