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Why Do Footballers Struggle at Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY)?

Some people get very worked up over Sports Personality of the Year. The long running BBC contest has celebrated many of the world’s best sportspeople since its foundation in 1954 in which time it’s become a British cultural institution that prompts serious levels of debate.

The Sports Personality of the Year award has always been a public vote. The way in which the shortlist for the public vote is decided has changed quite a bit in recent years but the ultimate prize has always been decided by the public. As we’ve found out since a certain referendum in 2016, public votes don’t always produce the sort of unity that those who hold the vote hope for and debate about the person awarded Sports Personality of the Year is always more intense than it needs to be.

Ardent fans of certain sports always question why their top British stars didn’t get the sort of recognition they believe they deserve and there’s usually a fairly disgruntled looking F1 driver or athlete left holding the third place trophy. Harry Kane is far too diplomatic to have looked anything but reverential and sincere when he won third place in the 2018 vote, but then perhaps he knew that was a very good result for a footballer.

A Problem of Perception

Kane was the first footballer to make it into the top three of public vote since Ryan Giggs won Sports Personality of the Year in 2009. Giggs’ win had the feeling of a lifetime achievement award at the time as it came after a year in which he made his 800th appearance for Manchester United and scored his 150th goal. It was a celebration of his longevity at the very top level of football and for his nice guy image.

What we didn’t know at the time of Giggs’ win was how far he would go to protect that image. Within 18 months of his victory speech at the Sheffield Arena, Giggs’ reputation had been shattered by super-injunctions and stories of extra-marital affairs with multiple women, most famously his brother’s wife. Oh Ryan!

It was the former part of that mess which arguably had the biggest effect on Giggs’ standing amongst the British public. Most people will accept that others make mistakes (although Giggs’ particular indiscretions were particularly eyebrow raising) but what the public don’t like is when high profile individuals attempt to suppress information and deny their wrongdoing.

Footballers are not held in the highest regard by the wider British public. Whether fair or not, there is a stereotype of footballers being feckless, stupid and entitled. Giggs was able to break through that mould for one reason or another and therefore garnered a high level of support from people who voted for him in 2009. Betrayal is probably a bit severe but many of those who supported him must have felt more than a little let down by his actions and you could argue that it has fuelled and even worsened the perception that the public have of footballers.

It’s not a coincidence that not a single footballer came close to winning Sports Personality of the Year in the nine years after Giggs until the captain of the England team who made it to the World Cup semi finals against all expectations came third. Clearly, Giggs is not solely to blame for the poor perception of footballers – that’s down to a combination of factors stretching back decades – but becoming a poster boy for the bad behaviour of footballers so soon after being held up as a role model certainly did not help and served as a timely reminder of one of the main reasons that footballers tend to struggle at Sports Personality of the Year.

Shearer and the Lack of Personalities

In total, just five footballers have won Sports Personality of the Year – Bobby Moore (1966), Paul Gascoigne (1990), Michael Owen (1998), David Beckham (2001) and Ryan Giggs (2009). The first three of those were players who starred for England teams who had success at the World Cup and came to embody the mood of the nation about the teams in which they played.

England football goal

As the man who received the World Cup from the Queen in 1966, Moore was the representative of everything that was good about Alf Ramsey’s team. The whole country was with Gascoigne as he and they ran the full gamut of emotions during Italia 90, and Owen’s goal against Argentina in France 1998 made him the standout player of the Golden Generation which had England so fans so excited about the future.

It was a little different for David Beckham. There was no big tournament performance but England fans were still basking in the glow of the 5-1 win over Germany and by this point Beckham was the England captain helping him become one of the biggest celebrities in the country. He’d also played an important role in Manchester United’s third successive league title and fully rehabilitated his reputation which took a hammering after his red card in the 1998 World Cup.

There was also the small matter of THAT free kick against Greece which booked England’s spot at the 2002 World Cup in the third minute of stoppage time in the decisive game!

The one thing that links all five footballers to have won Sports Personality of the Year is that they actually had personalities. Moore was the gentleman captain, Gascoigne the maverick, Owen the young pretender, Beckham the superstar and Giggs the consistent old stager. It’s fair to say that those five had different amounts of personality the more we learned about them but at the time of winning their award they lived up to the personality side of the award. That is not always the case with footballers.

The world of football was a very different place when Beckham won Sports Personality of the Year compared to when Moore won it. Football undoubtedly became much more professional in those years, the money available changed unbelievably as did the amount of influence from people outside of the dressing room.

With increased celebrity status came PR people, agents and managers, each of whom has a stake in managing the reputation of the players they represent for commercial reasons. All of a sudden, leading British footballers underwent media training to make sure that they showed only the parts of their personality that they want to show, or in some cases, no personality at all.

Perhaps unfairly, Alan Shearer came to embody this ultra-controlled, cautious and media-trained new breed of footballer. He was one of the greatest strikers in English football and has had no problems ruffling a few feathers since becoming a pundit but during his playing days he gave some of the most boring interviews in sport and it was all by design.

Pre- and post-game interviews became almost a contest between Shearer and the interviewer, with the England striker doing everything he could to say as little as possible. It was all “the important thing is the three points” and “they’re a good side so we knew it was going to be tough” and any other clichés he could fall back on to avoid giving anything away.

Shearer was not the only high profile player who said the bare minimum during his playing career. It’s an approach you see from many of the best players in the game and the lack of outward personality from footballers away from the pitch has not done anything for the chances of footballers winning Sports Personality of the Year.

Sterling Being Backed After Showing Plenty of Personality

The popularity of Sports Personality of the Year means that it is one of the most popular betting options in the specials markets of the UK bookmakers. Many punters have already taken early positions for the 2019 award but at this stage, with so many big events still to come, the betting looks very open. That can change quickly with some major sporting events ahead but the most interesting element of the market is the flood of money that’s come in for Raheem Sterling.

SPOTY Odds 2019
SPOTY Odds 2019

The idea of Sterling being the man most likely to end the 10 year drought of winning footballers in Sports Personality of the Year would have been laughable just a few years ago. Sterling was vilified by certain elements of the British press following England’s shocking performance at Euro 2016 both for his performances on the pitch and supposed flashness off of it. In many ways it was the treatment of Sterling by the press which started him along the path towards being one of the favourites for the 2019 Sports Personality of the Year.

Many fans, pundits and journalists raised concerns that there was a racist element to the coverage Sterling was getting. Although the authors of the many negative pieces on the former Liverpool player refuted any suggestion of racial bias in their reporting, the collective weight of Sterling’s press coverage was impossible to ignore.

Sterling would obviously be aware of what was being written about him and likely of the resulting backlash. He hadn’t asked to be a spokesperson against racism but raised his head above the parapet when posting a comparison between the coverage given to the amount of money earned by two Manchester City players, one black and one white, on his Instagram account. That post showed the public that Sterling is an intelligent, thoughtful young man, far removed from the stereotype of footballers and of the negative picture painted about him.

The Man City forward was then thrust into another racism row not of his own making when he was abused by a Chelsea fan at Stamford Bridge and by Montenegro fans when playing for England in Podgorica. He handled the abuse very well on both occasions at the time. Following those incidents he gave yet more considered interviews to the media and used his social media platform to get his message across.

More recently the City star also made headlines for his generous gift to pupils of his former school. As a child, Sterling was raised very near Wembley but could never afford to attend a game there, so he decided to pay for 500 pupils at his old school to attend City’s FA Cup semi final. He even arranged for City to win which was very nice of him!

Following that, the SPOTY contender made more positive headlines, and proved he can win awards off the pitch, by being named sportsman of the year at the 2019 British Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards. Arun King, who founded the charity Sporting Equals, said of Sterling, “He is undoubtedly one of the UK’s most thrilling talents. He is a trailblazer in his fight against racism. We are proud that he has become an iconic British sports star who represents so much for BAME communities and the entire sporting community, and will do for generations to come.”

Fans of both Man City and England feel a real sense of pride that Sterling represents them. He could have hidden from controversy and gone about his own business but he chose to stand up and be counted. He’s far from just a voice of reason away from football though. Sterling has become one of Pep Guardiola and Gareth Southgate’s most important players and probably the best England player around right now. He’s already got his hands on some silverware this season with City’s Carabao Cup win and could do something similar for England at the Nations League finals.

The recent injury to Harry Kane could see Sterling become even more important for the Three Lions. If he does play a starring role for the Three Lions in Portugal the bookies won’t be offering anything like the 10/1 that bet365 are quoting on Sterling winning Sports Personality of the Year 2019, so this may be the time to join those who are supporting him in the betting for both his sporting achievements and his personality.