Our community of football fans can be quite naive. We are quick to pass judgements on people, their characters and their status in society. We also spend no time in throwing superlatives as big as ‘legend’, or even ‘god’ based purely on their on-field performances.
What we don’t consider or conveniently choose to neglect is that some footballers sometimes fail completely off the pitch when it comes to living up to these names. Crime has crept its way into football, and several footballers are getting lured into that slightly darker world. It has not just limited itself to petty thefts, cheating and domestic violence, but has gone all the way up to murders, rape and match-fixing. Two recent incidents from non-Premiership football have got me thinking hard on the issue.
Luke McCormick, a former England youth international, was a goalkeeper at Plymouth Argyle from 2000-2008. He was Plymouth Argyle's first-choice, and has spent most of his professional career at the club. He rose through the club's youth ranks, and has twice been voted Argyle’s Young Player of the Year.
While coming back from a wedding in June, 2008, Luke ignored a plea from a friend to stop driving and pull over at a service station. Having more than twice the permissible level of alcohol in his blood, he fell asleep on the wheel, and crashed his Range Rover straight into a Toyota with a family inside. Two children aged 8 and 10 were killed on the spot, while their father suffered serious injuries.
Whatever McCormick does, he can never undo what he did that night. He was eventually sentenced to seven years in jail, which is presumably the maximum for the offence. However, because he’d been a ‘good prisoner’ and showed sufficient remorse, he was allowed to be released early, after serving half of the sentenced term.
Following his release from prison, Jeremy Wray, chairman of Swindon Town, saw this opportunity to sign him, and announced, “The guy's done his time. He wants to come back and give something back to society. The best way we can do that is to rehabilitate, and that's the role Swindon can play.”
Whether Luke should be rehabilitated and accepted back into mainstream society, and if it should be through football, is big moral question. Football fans were stirred, and gave a mixed reaction. A poll on thetownend.com, a fans' website, has 54% opposed to the idea and 4.6% threatening to withdraw their support.
A few Swindon fans I’ve spoken to are the ones who are opposing the idea. One said, “He has not been punished – he’s been on an extended training session. This has got nothing to do with rehabilitation; it’s about getting a good player for peanuts.”
While it is a fundamental right for someone to be given the chance to rebuild his or her life at the end of a prison sentence, and it’s just a coincidence that Luke’s bread and butter is football, which allows him a more celebrated life than a common man. It pains to imagine the plight of the family members of the accident victims, who will surely be gobsmacked if and when they see Luke McCormick on television, playing football, being cheered on, and earning plaudits.
Personally, I’d think that one would be in favour of giving him another chance to rebuild his career only if he’s serious about contributing something to society, perhaps by educating people on drunk driving. If his motive is just coming back to professional football and basking in its glory, then the beneficiaries of this so called rehabilitation are Luke himself, and Swindon Town. My faith in his ‘rehabilitation’ was destroyed when, in spite of everything, he was spotted drinking openly on 14th June, 2012, a week after being released from prison.
Ched Evans, an ex-Man City starlet, was sold to Sheffield United for £3million in 2009, and quickly became the ‘Rooney’ of the Blades. Evans wore the coveted No.9 shirt for them, had scored 35 goals for them over the past season, and was also a certainty for ‘Team GB’ at the Olympics.
However, rather than finishing the season on a high and training for the Olympics, he’s being detained at Altcourse Prison in Liverpool, where he is serving a five-year sentence following his conviction for rape.
The brief, disturbing details are these. The intoxicated victim — who could barely stand up — was initially picked up on a street corner by Evans’s friend Clayton McDonald, another footballer, who took her back to his hotel for before passing her onto Evans, by texting him, “I’ve got a bird”.
Back at the Premier Inn in Rhyl the following morning, the girl woke up alone in bed. By then, Evans and McDonald were long gone. McDonald left through the front door, Evans via a fire exit.
In other words, the 19-year-old girl was ‘roasted’ (the term footballers use for group sex) and raped while Evans’ brother and a mate tried to film proceedings on a mobile phone from a window outside the ground-floor room.
Evans claimed that the young woman had consented to sex, telling detectives, “We could have had any girl we wanted. We are footballers, that’s how it is. Footballers are rich; they have got money, that’s what girls like.”
Could there be a more sickening illustration of the reckless arrogance that seems to be in the DNA of many modern footballers? It is often the flip side of wealth and celebrity status, particularly when it arrives at such a young age.
The ugliness didn’t just end here. Within hours of the verdict, an internet backlash against the rape victim had begun. In the process, even though victims of serious sexual offences are granted lifelong anonymity by the courts, her identity was revealed on Twitter.
Maybe the culprits weren’t aware of the anonymity law or, more likely, given the ferocity of the personal abuse, they just didn’t care. Three of the men who allegedly named her (there are literally dozens who did so) have now been arrested.
A number of footballers joined the campaign, including a teammate of Ched Evans, who has now been suspended by Sheffield United. In the eyes of many supporters, the real victim is Evans himself, and their ‘beloved’ Sheffield United, which was deprived of his services as the side missed out on promotion from League One. A ‘Justice for Evans’ website was created, and there’s a similar page on Facebook as well.
This incident also brings back memories of Manchester United’s notorious Christmas party in 2007, when up to 100 girls from across the city were bussed to a local hotel. That infamous night also ended in an allegation of rape, this time against Manchester United defender Jonny Evans. He was arrested, but eventually did not face charges.
However, the father of all criminal footballers is none other than Les Bleus’ captain in the first ever World Cup, Alexandre Villaplane. Born in Algeria in 1905, Villaplane was the first player of North African origin to represent France. He won the first of his 25 France caps against Belgium in 1926, and was appointed captain just before the inaugural World Cup.
In 1929 he was signed by Racing Club de Paris, where he got acquainted with the underworld. He was later transferred to Antibes in 1932. The club won the southern section of Ligue 1 and then beat SC Fives Lille in the playoff, but later it was discovered that the match had been fixed. Antibes were stripped off their title and the team's manager was banned, but the real plotter of this scandal was Villaplane. After being released by Antibes, Villaplane joined second division outfit La Bastidienne Bordeaux. He was released after three months as he rarely turned up for training and went AWOL most of the time. That was the last the world of football heard of him.
Until, however, he appeared in the news again after being imprisoned for fixing horse races in Paris. Even after all of this, it was World War II that took Villaplane’s misdeeds to an entirely new level. He was recruited by French Gestapo, a gang which was involved in smuggling and black marketing for the Nazis. They regularly tracked down Jews, resistance fighters and various other enemies of the Reich.
In 1944, The Brigade Nord Africaine (BNA) was set up with instructions to ‘cleanse’ the Périgord region, by the orders of The Nazis. At its helm was Villaplane, promoted to the position of SS sub-lieutenant. His unit quickly became notorious for its cruelty.
Despite the barbarity of the BNA, resistance fighters became more in number. Villaplane began to realise that Germany may not win the war, and started to hedge his bets. He staged public acts of mercy, allowing many of the people he was supposed to be pursuing, to escape, cultivating the appearance that he was only working with the Nazis to help save his compatriots.
In August, with the allied forces closing in, Parisians rose up. Troops from the French army, over half of them African, arrived to complete the liberation of the French capital. The heads of the French Gestapo were tracked down and put on trial, then sentenced to death. On the day after Christmas, Villaplane and others were taken to the Fort de Montrouge in the outskirts of the city, and shot dead.
Thomas Fuller has correctly said, “He that falls into sin is a man; that grieves at it, is a saint; that boasts of it, is a devil.”
The question is - are footballers totally and utterly beyond anything that resembles normality? Would any other person with a different profession find it so easy to re-enter the workforce after serving time in prison for rape, robbery, manslaughter or assault? Or should we just accept the fact that, footballer or not, if a person has served his time and paid his dues to society, he is entitled to be given a second chance to live his life as and how he wants.
What role do the clubs and the PFA have to play in terms of education of young players and rehabilitation of those who’ve been charged with crime? Also, it poses us fans a big question, whether we are right to turn a blind eye to grotesque acts by these players, and be ignorant and arrogant in their defence.
It’s an open ended question and everybody is entitled to have their opinion. But the underlining fact is that no one, footballer or not, is beyond morality.
The above article has been published in July edition of '90 Minutes', India's first and finest football magazine. I like to thank editors of both, Footballspeak.com and '90 Minutes' for their permission to publish the article.