Last week a man retired after working continuously at the same organisation for twenty-six years. In the process he won a clutch of awards, earned the respect of millions and put said organisation centre-stage at world level.
Last week a man retired after working continuously at the same organisation for twenty-six years. In the process he abused people verbally, ignored rules and even assaulted members of his team physically.
You’re not seeing double and I’m not going crazy. But forgive me if I fail to be moved by the sycophantic tributes that have flown in Alex Ferguson’s (“Sir” Alex Ferguson, my God, how could I forget?) direction since he announced he was stepping down as Manchester United manager.
A word of caution first, though. This is not a “disgruntled Chelsea fan from SW6” type of post. I am the first one to recognise that in a world as fickle and unpredictable as the world of football is, a head coach who has lasted at a club for more than a quarter of a century is a feat. And not a mean one, at that. In fact, I don’t think that Alex’s tenure as United manager will be equalled, let alone surpassed any time soon. But it’s not his stature as a sports tactician I am questioning but the example he has set up as a man.
As Laurie Penny said recently à propos of Diane Abbot‘s speech to the thinktank Demos, there’s a crisis of masculinity in the UK now. Young men feel ignored and frustrated and tend to lash out as a consequence. There are many reasons for this state of affairs: unemployment, lack of prospects, confusion about the role of men in society. The list goes on. And yet in the midst of this crisis we choose to celebrate a man who has been known for flying off the handle at players (both his and others’) and referees. If there’s a football manager that typifies male aggression and bullying, Sir Alex Ferguson is that person.
I’m not making a scapegoat of “Fergie”. But I find it ironic that broadsheet papers that regularly carry reports on how domestic violence has increased, the many rape centres that have been closed and the effect that certain pop lyrics have on early sexualisation amongst teenagers and children, choose to bend themselves backwards to a man who didn’t have any second thoughts about throwing a boot at one of his players. Said player ended up with stitches on his eyebrow. You can still acknowledge how good the man was as a football manager, but there’s no need for special Sunday supplements.
As chance would have it, a week after Sir Alex retired, David Beckham, one of Manchester United former stars, also decided to hang his boots. Having played for the Red Devils, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and Paris St-Germain, Beckham is living proof of how modern football has welcomed globalisation with open arms. And deep pockets. There’s another side, though, to the Beckham character. The key word to understanding this other side is the word “ambassador”. He was an ambassador during London’s bid to host the Olympics last year. He was an ambassador during the games and he will continue to be an ambassador during his “retirement”. Lord Sebastian Coe will make sure of that. And you don’t become a high-ranked spokesman of British sport by being boorish. What’s set Beckham apart from the Fergies of this world is his sportsmanship on and off the field.
Brand “Beckham” is the yin to Ferguson’s yang. Whilst David never had many difficulties in showing his more delicate side (remember that sarong?), Ferguson stopped having post-matches interviews with the BBC after the latter made a series of allegations about Alex’s son, Jason, a football agent, in a documentary in 2004. So, basically, a broadcaster has to ask permission from Sir Alex first before it does its duty. Beckham symbolised at some point the early noughties’ new masculinity, comfortable in its femininity. On the other hand Ferguson, typifying old-fashioned male chauvinism, attributed this attitude to David’s marriage to Posh Spice and his joining the celebrity world. Beckham was soon off-loaded to Real Madrid.
We could carry on like this forever but the problem as I see it is that there is still too much machismo around. Sir Alan Sugar (the boss in the television programme The Apprentice) expects contestants to kowtow to him, and if they don’t, he will point his finger at them (which is rather rude, by the way) and and let them know that “You’re fired”. No wonder men are confused. Between women’s achievements such as the pill, abortion rights and a more inclusive job market and the eradication of the idea of men as sole bread-winners, it is easy to see why the so-called “stronger sex” is a bit wobbly at the knees. And yet, this contrasts with what we see on our television sets and what we read about in the papers. Last year David Haye, former heavyweight champion, got into a famous brawl with his fellow British boxer Dereck Chisora after the latter lost to Vitali Klitschko. The ugly scenes were captured on live telly. However, months later Haye was allowed to get into the ring to fight Dereck Chisora in a match that resembled more two deer rutting. Meanwhile our boys are watching... and learning.
If we are to address this “crisis of masculinity”, the first course of action would have to be to see masculinity as a wide-ranging concept and not defined by phallus size, number of female partners or performance in bed. Alcohol/drug misuse and poor sexual education would have to be reclassified as high priority. Father-friendly parenting classes would have to become part of the long-term vision, not just for Number 10, but also for local councils. Full front-pages dedicated to boot-throwing managers would be relegated to the back pages. And under no circumstances would there special Sunday supplements.
Next Post: “Lets’ Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd May at 11:59pm (GMT)