Football, fear, Roy Keane and Niccolo Machiavelli

Date published: Thursday 12th October 2017 11:50

I’ve never really understood the cult of Roy Keane. I don’t know about you, but being employed alongside a man who would knock you out because you echo his instruction to ‘f*** off after a defeat would not encourage me to do better – it would merely prompt me to get the number of the club HR rep on speed dial. (I’m sure plenty reading this are thinking ‘well, that’s why you’re not an elite-level athlete’, but I can assure them there are plenty of other, better reasons than that.)

Yet there is certainly no shortage of fans, journalists and ex-pros who love nothing more than to chime in about how players these days have it too easy, and how having a bit of the fear put into them wouldn’t do any harm.

A big part of football culture, particularly with older players and managers, is the idea that there is a time and a place to visibly enjoy yourselves. Things that seemed like morale-boosting fun and games on the bus down to a distant away trip suddenly become deeply troubling signs of immaturity and unprofessionalism when that trip ends in defeat. Now that England’s place at the World Cup has been confirmed, we can all start looking forward to the shrieks and wails of moral outrage when a player dares to smile on the plane after our brave Three Lions are eliminated in the second round. My money’s on Jesse Lingard. It’s always bloody Jesse Lingard with these things.

Those of us who see those players as fallible human beings with thoughts and emotions, rather than as two-dimensional robots who should have no life outside their jobs, find this attitude weird – as long as they’re running their drills, putting in the extra hours, and working as hard as they can on the pitch, who cares if they are then seen to be laughing and joking the next day? We all know plenty of people who are both enormously good fun to be around and hugely successful in their careers – why do we expect our footballers to be any different?

There is, to be fair, some method in the apparent madness. Asking players to put their emotions into neat “right place, right time” boxes is the first step towards uniting the squad: after all, if everyone in the group is feeling the same way, it is easier to get that group to work towards a common goal. And if you have to get one emotion across to large group quickly and effectively, you can’t really do better than fear.

As the infamous political philosopher and noted sports psychologist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote when addressing whether it is better for a leader to be feared or loved: “It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved…men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Of course, asking a group of people to suppress their emotions in favour of asserting a rule instituted on fear is despicable: no-one with an ounce of humanity in their soul would stand for it in our teachers, youth coaches or politicians (what that tells us about our society is too depressing to consider for too long). But, by definition, human decency is part of the price you pay with a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Is it worth putting yourself through that in the pursuit of glory? There are plenty of successful footballers who will tell you it is. Whether or not we should see it as admirable is another question entirely.

Just don’t tell Roy Keane he is Machiavellian. He will f***ing do you.

Steven Chicken

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