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Football not as far off Olympic gold standard as you might think
'OLYMPICS good - football bad'.
It's an opinion that's been expressed far and wide this week as Britain's collective post-Games hangover extends into the start of the Premier League season. It's also simplistic nonsense.
The Olympics were a fantastic fortnight of sport, a never-to-be-forgotten celebration of all that is good about sporting competition and notions of sportsmanship and fair play that appear to have been forgotten by the footballing fraternity.
But does that automatically mean that the start of a new football season should be accompanied by sanctimonious utterances of dread?
I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in London covering the Games. I loved every minute of it. But I still can't wait to be at St James' Park on Saturday to watch Newcastle play Spurs and I'm equally excited about being at Middlesbrough on Tuesday to watch Tony Mowbray's side play their first home game against Burnley.
Football is our national sport for a reason. It's part of the fabric of our national life, and while it might not be perfect, it's folly to deny that its imperfections are an intrinsic part of its appeal.
Comparing it to the Olympics is like comparing apples with oranges. There are broad similarities, but fundamental differences also exist.
For a start, football is tribal. The atmosphere at Premier League and Football League grounds this weekend will be completely different to the mood that swept across London's Olympic venues this month.
There's an edge to our football culture, a heightened passion that occasionally spills over into something undesirable but more often than not simply adds to the experience of watching a game.
It's us against them, antagonistic from the outset. That mitigates against the kind of communal warmth that was experienced in London, but sustains a narrative that will inevitably make compelling viewing over the next nine months.
The Premier League is the most widely viewed league in the world. Why? Because people far and wide buy into the tribal divisions on which it is founded. For all the money that has poured into the sport in recent seasons, issues of identity still matter.
Ah yes, money. The root of all evil and, in the eyes of some, the key difference between those nasty, self-absorbed footballers and our humble, heroic Olympians.
Don't get me wrong, I've met some footballers I wouldn't dream of putting myself out to say hello to. But I've also got to know some talented, dedicated and grounded people, committed to their training and fully aware of their wider role in both the local community and wider society at large.
Yes, they shout and swear more than most Olympic athletes, and some of them roll around on the floor a bit and pretend they're injured when they're not.
But they exist under incredible pressures, far detached from those experienced by most Olympians, and they perform in an arena that is markedly different to that of the Games.
Now and then, they overstep the line. But so do their managers, coaches and the millions who pour into stadiums every weekend to cheer them on. If you're going to criticise our footballers, then you also have to criticise those who have helped create the environment in which they exist. And if you're a subscriber to Sky Sports, you can count yourself in that number too.
Premier League footballers are much more highly-paid than our Olympians, but that's because they're the most popular sportsmen or women in the country.
If you don't like that, do something about it. Go and watch a local athletics meeting this weekend or help out at your local archery club. But don't blame footballers for making the most of the situation they find themselves in.
Similarly, don't blindly have a go at our football clubs for giving nothing back. There has been a lot of talk about legacy in recent weeks, of inspiring a future generation to take up sport and using the power of the Olympics to help transform impoverished communities.
Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough have been doing for that for years. Our three biggest clubs all boast well-established community wings that have pumped considerable time and effort into improving their local area.
They have transformed young North-Easterners into world-renowned stars, and provided coaching and tuition for countless other youngsters who have been introduced to the benefits of playing regular sport.
The Olympics come around once every four years - our football clubs are out there every day working to bring about improvements.
So by all means celebrate our Olympians. Make good on your promise to support Olympic sport. But don't use that as a stick to beat football with. And get ready for nine months of marvellous madness to begin.
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