Last night, I watched what was supposed to be a showpiece European Champions League semi-final between two of the “greatest” clubs in world football... What I actually witnessed was a display of school playground petulance and cheating that was, at times, embarrassing. The saving grace was Lionel Messi, whose skill and two goals were truly exceptional and he was a shining beacon on a night where very few emerged with any credit...
In a sport dominated by money and driven by television, the highest-profile footballers are as wealthy off the pitch as they are cynical on it and those of lesser ability still have an opportunity to acquire riches beyond their wildest dreams.
Almost ten years ago (it was actually 13th May 2001), I travelled down to Leeds to watch Hunslet Hawks host Gateshead Thunder in what was the second tier of professional rugby league. At the time, Gateshead Thunder’s history was as traumatic as it was brief and a brand new club re-formed (following the departure of 1999’s Super League squad) was winless in the league. They had come close on a few occasions, but that historic victory remained elusive...
There weren’t 80,000 at the South Leeds Stadium that day... there weren’t even 800 and the players on show probably wouldn’t have earned as much in a collective year as some footballers make in a week, but if you ever want to measure a true sportsman, then look no further than rugby league. Fitness, speed, skill, courage... this games has it all... in abundance.
I’ve stood and watched many a game and winced at the force of collisions that would put many a Premiership prima donna out of action for weeks... yet these lads get up and do it again... and again... and for what reward?
Ask head coach Andy Kelly, skipper Carl Briggs and local lads like Steve Bradley, Steve Rutherford and Paul Thorman who were on duty that warm May afternoon a decade ago. Their reward certainly wasn’t financial and their bodies would have been sore for days afterwards... No, it was about professional pride and the sheer elation at proving to themselves and their supporters that they could do it; they could face and overcome all so many challenges and emerge victorious.
I remember the day clearly – despite smacking my head on a glass window celebrating one of our tries – and would I trade the memory of that brilliant 40-12 success in a lowly game of rugby league for a ticket to the Nou Camp next week?
Not a chance. I might admire the craft and ability of Lionel Messi, but if you want the definition of respect... I can think of seventeen lads and a coach who will always be worth more than anyone El Clasico had to offer...
All my own work... almost.