What Does It Mean to Be a Professional Footballer Today?

In the months leading up to the World Cup, sports brands galore have launched “unofficial ad campaigns” for Brazil 2014 and one in particular has emerged as my frontrunner. Nike’s “Winner Stays On” has managed to not only capture my imagination and fuel my excitement for what’s to come, but also brought about reflection and nostalgic flashbacks of my youth. Did I also mention Pirlo is in it? I love that guy.

As a kid, I participated in a litany of sports, from football to softball to tennis and more, and in each game I played I performed as an embodiment of my favorite player. I was, for each glorious afternoon there was a match, my dream player. I was Bo Jackson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Johan Cruyff, Randy Johnson, Flo Jo, John McEnroe, Nancy Lopez and in some small way, I was me.

But this is what sports is for me. A chance not only to see amazing athletes perform and do what they do best, but also an opportunity to dream about being that person. And for some that are dedicated and talented enough, they’ll make those dreams a reality. It’s that drive, passion, joy, and hope that I saw in this ad that made me want to watch it over and over again. However, it also brings to mind another aspect of that game that many people don’t think about and makes me ask, “What has happened to football today?”

For me, professional football has lost some of its sparkle and shine. The love of the game has been replaced by overly dramatic dives and flops, dirty tackles, incredulous misconduct off the pitch, poor sportsmanship, too many transfer windows, as well as annoyingly greedy sports agents who constantly flood the Internet with Daily Mail-esque gossip of transfer deals and speculations of feuds causing discord within locker rooms and amongst players and managers.

How we now choose to look up to someone has also shifted as it is seemly based on how much money they have, who they’re shagging, and what kind of cars they drive rather than the skills they possess and the quality of the goals they score. The focus is now on off the pitch antics rather than on the pitch and sportsmanship and passion have fallen by the wayside as the new ethos of C.R.E.A.M., taken from a page out of Wu-Tang’s book is the deciding factor on how things play out.

I also don’t know how much enjoyment I’ll get out of watching this year’s World Cup as FIFA continues to run a controversial “non-profit” business with a billion-dollar reserve. Questionable practices are no longer speculative and include an alarming amount of bribery, especially pertaining to Qatar’s awarding of the 2022 World Cup (but could this be reversed with a re-awarding of the host?!). With uncertainty surrounding the creation of a more transparent platform on the horizon, it’s worrying about the direction football is going from the top down. And although I would love nothing more than watching a game like the 1970s World Cup final and epic goals like that of Carlos Alberto, you can’t help wonder if this tournament will be shrouded in controversy and almost deliberately jokes refereeing like it has in the past. If we have goal line technology and white spray for penalties, surely officials can take a moment to consult a replay in the biggest tournament in the world?

All I want to see for the next month is skill, sportsmanship, determination, blood, sweat and tears. I want to see the love of the game shine through and each team play as if their lives were on the line. I want to be sucked in and sat on the edge of my seat every single night there’s a match, but above all, I want football to be a sport of the people, by the people, and for the people again.

I will cheer for every team that gives it their all. I will celebrate every goal that an underdog makes and weep for any teams that do not make it through. I will hope for a winner that is fair and just and worthy of holding that glorious trophy up over their heads.

As you watch your teams take the field, just take a minute to remember what this game means to you. Our love of it will never fade, but I hope they don’t forget why we love it in the first place.

Go Korea. (I am ridiculously optimistic, but that’s what football is all about.)

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