This year ITV made the bold decision to roll out a winter series of their popular reality show, Love Island. Over the years it had become a staple of summertime watching. The decision was a concerning one for National league south side Oxford City.
The winner of this year’s Love Island was twenty-year-old Finn Tapp, who had breached his contract with Oxford City FC to appear on the reality show. Finn was a centre back, plying his trade in the National League South following being released from MK Dons. Oxford City’s commercial director Mick Livesey took a pragmatic view towards what had gone on. He was understanding that a young lad would rather take his chances at striking big on Love Island, which has been known to boost social profiles to a stage where you can make huge money. However, Livesey also says that Finn had done very well for the team and that him leaving mid-way through a season has been detrimental to the club and its results.
Finn had essentially prioritised making a career through reality TV over football. Of course, due to the low level he was playing at, this is a life-changing decision and most likely the correct one, especially considering the success he had on the show. However, it made me reflect on the faded line between footballer and celebrity.
In the modern era of football, and the intense commercialisation of the sport, footballers are now public figures, with reputations which stem further beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch.
It is easy to point the finger at the introduction of the Premier League which created a spectacle out of the players and invested money which had never been seen before. That isn’t simply the case though, footballers have been adored, idolised and followed for generations, yet just in different ways.
To look at players whose image outstretched what they did on the pitch, there is one place you must start. Manchester United.
Manchester United as a club has an aura which is almost unmatched in English football. A global market research agency, Kantar, estimated United to have a worldwide follower and fan base of 1.1 billion, making them the most supported club in the world. Although these statistics are open to a large amount of speculation and debate, the fact remains that United as a club has a reach which enamours many from around the globe.
That starts with Matt Busby and the ‘Busby Babes’. Matt Busby had a strong faith in playing youth players and took a team to back to back league titles with an average squad age of 22. Hence, the nickname ‘Busby Babes’ coming to fruition.
The Munich air disaster of 1958, which took 23 lives including 8 players, ripped a hole through the heart of Matt Busby’s famous team. However, what wasn’t too be expected was how such a devastating moment in football history became the catalyst for United going from a successful football club to England’s first mega club.
All eyes and hearts wherewith Manchester, as Matt Busby aimed to relight the embers of the club’s former success.
The Munich air disaster developed an identity for Manchester United which caught the attention of those near and afar, and that identity was made all the so powerful due to the collective feeling of suffering and bereavement.
The 1960s also saw the beginning of televised football. As well as the World cup of 1966. England’s winning team had starring roles for United’s own Nobby Stiles and of course Bobby Charlton. Manchester United was firmly in the limelight and their elixir was being consumed by the thousands. The club gradually found itself entangled with every facet of modern society. Their attacking style of play which enticed fans on the pitch also became a symbol of the widespread liberalisation in western society throughout the 1960s.
Throughout all this, there is one man who stood out amongst the rest. George Best. Best was the first footballer to become something much further beyond the port of call. On the football pitch, he was awe-inspiring, pacey and skillful, with a flair which made his number 7 shirt one of the most iconic in world football. Best won the European football of the year award, now known as the Ballon D’or in 1968. He expressed his personality through his football. It seemed a match made in heaven, that such a player found himself amongst the spotlight of Manchester United. George Best was 19 when he inspired one of the greatest European performances of all time. Scoring twice in a 5-1, against a previously unbeaten Benfica side, who hosted 1965 European footballer of the year, Eusebio.
Best himself put it like this, “On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods”.
He had gone beyond being simply a great football player, he was now a cultural icon.
As Best returned to England, he was pictured in a sombrero and now became a media superstar, ‘El Beatle’ he was dubbed. Best had the good looks, the fashion and the haircut to be cast by many as the ‘Fifth Beatle’. This media description wasn’t simply a headline though. Best soared through the 1960’s as the Beatles did, with manic admiration, awe, expression, and inevitably success.
As the Beatles fused music with the changes in society. Their song ‘All you need is love’, becoming the soundtrack of the ‘Summer of love’. An embodiment of the societal undercurrent of the decade, anti-war and free love. This prompted John Lennon to exclaim that the band, were more popular than Jesus. Music and musicians were seemingly reaching a higher plain of admiration and obsession, they were now symbols of society, which could almost be put alongside cultural stables, like religion.
Best did this for football. He stepped out of football and became the symbol of liberation, fusing sex pop and the sport into one seemingly glorious euphoria.
One of Best’s most famous quotes paints the picture of a man who was much more than a sporting figure.
“If you’d given me the choice of going out and beating four men and smashing a goal in from thirty yards against Liverpool or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been a difficult choice. Luckily, I had both.”
It wasn’t as if George Best was the first footballer to be adored on a grand scale. Jackie Milburn was a cultural icon for the whole of Tyneside in the North East of England. Known as ‘Wor Jackie’ due to the area’s intense affinity with him, he represented the area, whilst being a relatively shy and self-deprecating figure personally. So much so that thousands lined the streets of Newcastle, on the days of his funeral, to pay their respects.
The difference between what Jackie Milburn achieved and George Best, was that Best captured the imagination of many more and his circumstance was seemingly perfect for the icon he was to become.
Best, however, was also living this life very close to the edge, and as a man who revelled in the media and public admiration which his life had created. The vices he endured eventually became too much, and he died following alcohol addiction.
He had shown how footballers could become much more than just what the fans see on the pitch. That the sport itself, is so loved that it can be used as a vehicle to represent whole communities, societies even and inspire things in people outside of the sport itself. Best was not just a footballer, he was a symbol of the spirit of the 1960s, Manchester United wasn’t just a football club, they were now a global community.
It wasn’t long before Manchester United were again the fortune home to another wave of media mysticism.
In the 1990s, ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, became the obvious predecessor to the ‘Busby Babes’. For those who don’t know, the ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ were the group of young players recruited for Manchester United under the management of Alex Ferguson. Trained throughout their tenure in the youth sides by Eric Harrison and through into the first team with Brian Kidd.
Continuing that mythical aura that had hung over the club following the disaster of 1958. Manchester United successfully emulated the famously youthful side which Matt Busby had sculpted, but this time doing so in the modern era of football, under the newly commercialised glare of the Premier League. ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ have been collectively and are more commonly known as ‘The class of 92’. The group of youngsters which came through the club’s youth ranks, starting with the FA youth cup in 1992, and who led the team to a historic treble in 1999.
Manchester United had done it again and had captured their fans and the general public’s imagination, they were once again doing things which grew beyond the sport. This was Hollywood entertainment, it wasn’t football. The script owed itself to film, the youthful exuberant team who were shattered through a disaster and fought back to become a side who were followed the world over. Meanwhile, making celebrities out of their players, and creating spectacle and mania out of a football club which had never been seen before. Not only that, but it was happening again and this time, it was even more accessible and had even more eyes on it.
Which player was it to be this time? Who created a public image which went far beyond the field of play? In the 1960’s it was George Best. For the class of 92, it was David Beckham. Beckham was a superstar. Same as George Best, he was a spectacular football player and had the ability, flair and expression which captured fans attention. One needs only to think of his halfway line goal against Wimbledon. Scored wearing his Adidas Predators, that he later made almost the most iconic football boot in the world, due to his growing celebrity status. It was even written into this Hollywood-esque script that Beckham would inherit Best’s iconic number 7 shirt ahead of the 97/98 season. He was to become the natural successor to Best, both on and off the pitch, the superstar football celebrity.
Beckham is known as a British cultural icon, almost more than he is seen as a sporting one. Sir Alex Ferguson himself said, he is such a big celebrity, that football is such a small part. Beckham’s marriage to Victoria Adams, also known as Posh Spice, was the merging between entertainment and sport. Which removed him further from the football star, and into the celebrity world.
It is known that this started to deteriorate his relationship with Sir Alex and number his days at Manchester United. Ferguson notes that he married into the entertainment world, and it was difficult for him from that moment to stay grounded as a footballer and not become something else. The next step for him was clear. He was to become a ‘Galactico’. The Galactico era was a policy at Real Madrid installed by president Florentino Perez. Whereupon the club was enforced to sign a global superstar footballer every summer. This was an obvious shift in football strategy for a mega club, players were signed on their stock, brand appeal and recognition, as well as their footballing ability. His commercial potential outweighed his gifts on the pitch, despite still being a top-quality player. It was obvious why Real chose to pursue Beckham ahead of world cup winners like Ronaldinho.
Perez said himself that Beckham was a man of our times, and a symbol of modern-day stardom, when he unveiled the player at Real back in 2003. The club set off to cash in on Beckham’s huge marketing appeal in Asia, it was said to be a particularly big success, due to the weight of Beckham’s star quality.
In line with the trends in commercialisation, Beckham was able to become a star who carried much further financial weight than George Best ever did. Both were icons outside the sport, but the money-making possibilities in the 2000s showed just how far you could market this new wave of football celebrities. In 2007, Beckham was to sign for LA Galaxy. He made a massive amount of money for the club before he had even set foot on a pitch. Galaxy signed a five-year shirt sponsorship with Herbalife worth twenty million, and shirt sales reached a record number before he had even been officially announced. Beckham’s agency stoked the fire of the media frenzy by stating he was set to earn $250 million from the move, a statement which included all potential revenue he could make from personal endorsements as well as the club. The fact of the matter is, Beckham was worth big money to all involved, and at this stage of his career it was because of something much more than what he could do on the football pitch.
When arriving in LA, he wasn’t a footballer, he was a model, an actor, a superstar. “Fútbol meets Football”, Adidas extensive ad campaign starring Beckham was launched immediately. He covered Sports illustrated and W magazine.
His career as a footballer was marred mostly by injuries and he was far from the star player he once was. Yet his weight as a superstar was what continued to earn him such opportunities and admiration. He went on to play for mega club’s AC Milan and Paris St Germain and makeover 100 caps for his country.
Simon Moon, of This Is Money, stated that Beckham’s name is as instantly recognisable as multi-national companies like Coca Cola. It is likely that David Beckham is one of the few top players who have made money outside of football which far outstrips what he earned through it. There were many great footballers during that time, some would say that were far better than Beckham. Yet there was only one David Beckham. A mega-star first, a footballer second.
Now we are left examining what has now become. Jose Mourinho says that in today’s footballing world, players are more interested in fame than trophies. With the money and opportunities that can be gained from being a brand of your own, a celebrity, not just a footballer, you can almost see why. George Best opened the door, David Beckham paved the way in today’s society, and now we have a culture in football, where the footballer is signed to entertainment agencies before they’ve even made a first-team appearance.
Of course, without becoming the footballer first, you will not have the foundation. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best footballers still playing today, and amongst all his achievements on the field, he also has a massive public image outside of it. He has a lifetime contract with Nike as their ambassador. He has his own clothing line, CR7, which includes his own fragrances and underwear. Ronaldo has his own hotels. He has a museum dedicated to him back in his home country of Portugal. A line of apps, and of course a massive social media following. Madeira airport is now officially named Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport and is home to one of the more questionable looking statues of Ronaldo that exist.
Paul Pogba has two distinct images. There is the World Cup winner, the supremely talented, expressive and flair driven midfielder. Then there is the marketing dream that is Paul Pogba. The hairstyles which capture the attention of people far beyond the sport. The Adidas ambassador, who was introduced back to Manchester United by grime artist Stormzy, in another merging of the football world and the entertainment industry. The right player can be much more than a footballer in today’s age.
However, it still comes down to the principle of how much you are adored, how far spread is that adoration and how much money are they prepared to spend in pursuit of that. Now in the commercialised era of football, and the online capabilities that give the globe access to these football stars no matter where they are. Footballers are now able to be followed and loved more than ever before. That gives them the chance to be marketed much further, sold much further, and breeds many more football superstars, football celebrities.