Christmas tradition that leaves sour taste
Footballers and the festive season do not mix. Glenn Moore explores a history of increasing excess
If Fabio Capello's language teacher has a sense of humour he may wish to set, for the new England manager's homework, the task of translating two newspaper articles.
The first concerns how Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool stalwart who is frequently held up as England's best pure defender, this week told his club television channel that he was unlikely to rescind his retirement from international football even if Capello asked him. This was widely described as Capello's "first setback".
The second was printed in 1998. Carragher, already an established Liverpool player, was on the brink of being capped by England. Four pages of the News of the World were dedicated to Liverpool's Christmas party in which Carragher, aided by several handfuls of whipped cream, was alleged to have "cavorted" with strippers. "This is the man I cannot do without?" Capello might muse.
Well, maybe he is. Carragher is cursed by the knowledge that this squalid tale will always be dug up when the subject of footballers' Christmas parties arise but, unlike some of Capello's alternatives, he does appear to have learned from his youthful idiocy. Not so the captain, John Terry, who was recently reported to have urinated on a nightclub floor at Chelsea team-mate Shaun Wright-Phillips' birthday party. Capello's other leading centre-half, Rio Ferdinand, organised this week's now infamous Manchester United Christmas Party, which reportedly involved vast amounts of alcohol, 100 girls bussed in to liven proceedings, and, ultimately, young defender Jonny Evans being arrested and questioned following a rape allegation.
Capello will be no more impressed by these events than Sir Alex Ferguson, who is understood to have given reluctant assent to United's Christmas bash. Ferguson feared the sort of headlines which have followed the party because in England footballers, girls and alcohol are an explosive mix, especially at Christmas.
Previous Christmas parties have ended in a youth team player (Manchester City's Jamie Tandy) having a cigar stubbed out in his eye by Joey Barton (now at Newcastle); Trevor Sinclair fined after admitting criminal damage to a Mini, after a West Ham event; Hayden Foxe urinating on the bar at Sugar Reef nightclub at a later Hammers' party; Dennis Wise and Robbie Savage coming to blows at a Leicester City do after Wise gave Savage the present of a teddy bear impaled on a sex toy; three Celtic players arrested after an incident with a photographer on Tyneside there is more, much more, but the point is made.
Christmas parties were ending in high jinks and a degree of debauchery 30 years ago, the difference now is the players are richer, which gives many a sense of being untouchable, and more famous, which makes them a target for gold-diggers and groupies. Football may be increasingly anti-alcohol "like putting diesel in a petrol car," said former Liverpool manager Grard Houllier but society itself is much more tolerant of binge-drinking, while at the same time being sanctimonious about it.
So why do managers, reluctantly or otherwise, continue to allow Christmas parties? One reason is tradition, much as is the case at most offices and factories throughout the land, the other is a genuine belief that these events "bond" the team. Harry Redknapp has complained that the foreign players at Portsmouth, who are in large measure responsible for the club's best season in decades, either failed to turn up at the Christmas party, or left early. Increasingly managers send senior staff, or security men, along with the players, and insist they book a sealed venue. But problems still occur.
It is not exclusively an English issue. Denmark's Stig Tofting, once of Bolton, was sacked by AGF for punching four of his team-mates after his shirt had been torn. Bayern Munich this week fined captain Oliver Kahn for leaving early. "Kahn must know he has to set an example to the younger players and at the Christmas party he did not behave well. The captain can't leave early," said coach Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Bayern's party, however, is unlikely to be as wild as an English one. I once found myself in the same Paris restaurant as the Real Zaragoza team after their shock defeat of Arsenal in the 1995 European Cup-Winners' Cup final. Had a notoriously heavy-drinking Arsenal team won it would have been a riot. Zaragoza's players and their wives were so quiet they could have been marking a 40th wedding anniversary.
The attitude of many foreign players will resemble that of Lars Leese, a German who played in the Premier League for Barnsley. He described how the main aim at the Christmas party was to get drunk as quick as possible while cheering on those team-mates who had sex with the strippers. The Christmas Party, said Leese, "was an acquired taste".
It is a taste English football finds hard to quit, even though unedifying headlines like the ones following Manchester United's party are as much a Christmas staple as turkey and mince pies.