No player is bigger than the game

In a European Champions League football match on Tuesday, Manchester City’s Argentine forward, Carlos Tévez, refused manager Roberto Mancini’s call to come on as a substitute in the second half, with City 2-0 down to Bayern Munich. Television cameras captured Mr Tévez declining to warm up when Mr Mancini turned to him. A striker on strike, you might say, but to everyone watching it was an astonishing and flagrant display of defiance and unprofessionalism, all the more so for someone earning the staggering – some say, obscene – sum of £200,000 a week.

In the post-match press conference, Mr Mancini’s anger was evident as he stated, “Carlos cannot play with us now. It is finished.” This would suggest that the volatile relationship between the two, ever since the Italian became manager in December 2009, is now irretrievable and Mr Tévez could be considered surplus to City’s requirements until the reopening of the European transfer window on January 1, 2012.

Mr Tévez, in a statement released on Wednesday, claimed that he had been “misunderstood” and that he had not refused to play, adding, “Going forward I am ready to play when required and to fulfil my obligations.” Mr Tévez’s command of English is known to be limited and the statement, obviously aimed at damage control, was presumably written by his agent or public relations advisers – a view given credence by the use of the meaningless cliché “going forward,” so beloved of spin doctors and the default option for those who have erred and would like to move on without looking back or at themselves.

Mr Tévez’s assertion rings hollow, moreover, as he has been no stranger to controversy ever since he joined the club in July 2009. And since last December, he has been seeking a transfer, citing family reasons and displeasure at having to live in Manchester in the north of England.

Obviously, money does not always buy happiness and, certainly, Mr Tévez’s antics, for all his footballing brilliance, have won him few friends in England. He now may have lost any remaining credibility he might have had as a professional although, in a sport dominated by big money and already under the spotlight for corrupt governance at the global level, it is not unlikely that he will eventually find the place in the sun he seems to be seeking.

As it is, Manchester City has suspended Mr Tévez, pending a full review into his conduct, and he has been fined two weeks’ wages, the maximum allowed under English Football Association regulations. So widespread is the disgust at Mr Tévez’s behaviour though, it is thought unlikely that the club will bow to player power, as it is rich enough to cancel his contract for gross misconduct, regardless of the cost, if it so wishes.

Whatever is decided, Carlos Tévez and his ilk are monsters created by a football market gone mad. Indeed, there is a growing view that too much money is being thrown by clubs at players, no matter how talented, in a desperate bid to win silverware at all costs. It is therefore hard not to regard some footballers nowadays as prima donnas, spoilt brats even, overindulged, overhyped and overpaid.

The old adage that no player is bigger than the game should hold true in football as it does in every other sport. Look at Tiger Woods and his spectacular fall from grace. Look at Usain Bolt, the headline act of the recent World Athletics Championships in Korea. He fell victim to the controversial new false start rule and was disqualified from the much anticipated 100m final. The heat of competition can be as unforgiving as it is uplifting but the rules are bent for no athlete, no matter how great or how many people want to see him. Mr Bolt was, of course, big enough to storm back and scorch the field in the 200m final and the 4x100m relay, but he was also big enough to admit his mistake and accept that he was not bigger than the sport itself.

And look at Chris Gayle and the West Indies Cricket Board. It seems that as long as the combative Jamaican refuses to apologise for his outspoken criticism of coach Ottis Gibson, he may have to live out his playing days as a T20 mercenary. The WICB is right on at least one count – no player is bigger than the game.  The problem with the WICB though is that it needs to reform itself and be managed by people with credibility, who themselves recognise that they, like the players, are there to serve the game and are not bigger than the game.

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