Has Football Culture become.. Cultured?
So let’s set the scene. Throughout history football and footballers have been frequently linked with the consumption of alcoholic beverages, though it would be fair to say that wine hasn’t really been the poison of choice, at least not for long. The game was first codified, in October 1863, in a London pub, and the drinks that surely flowed at that meeting set the tone for the sport that was created. For many British players over the last 150 years the ability to put away pints has been considered scarcely less important than the ability to put away chances, and when the time came to hang up their boots they moved in great numbers into a second career as publicans.
Tales of drunken excess hang over the history of British football like the foul fog of stale booze on a morning-after drunk. Players indulged to excess before games, after games and between games. “The night before the League Cup final against Southampton in 1979 we were blotto,” the former Nottingham Forest striker Gary Birtles recalled, a not entirely atypical tale even if his then manager, Brian Clough, had a particularly dysfunctional relationship with booze. “We had everything we could possibly have wanted to drink. Bitter, lager, mild, champagne. There were people who could hardly stand by the time we went to bed. But Clough insisted on it.” They won that final 3-2.
Those days are gone. Today’s elite footballers are finely-oiled machines, fuelled by complex carbohydrates and protein shakes rather than lagers and post-match kebabs. Along the way litres of fizzy, bloating beer have been replaced by the occasional glass of wine. Take, for example, Arsenal, where under George Graham players would frequently, according to former squad member Perry Groves, get through “15 or 20 pints” in a single evening. Arsene Wenger’s arrival prompted a culture-change so extensive that soon team-mates were chatting among themselves about the appreciation of fine wines – Lee Dixon, now one of football’s great oenophiles, was introduced to his hobby in the Highbury dressing-room by David Platt (just to be clear, they were talking about wine in the dressing-room, not actually consuming it).
David Beckham, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Andrea Pirlo and Diego Maradona are linked by more than just extreme sporting achievement – they all make their own wines. “I’ve always drunk wine, ever since I was little and my mother mixed a little of it with water for me,” says Pirlo. “I like to read about wine, to understand it, to try wines from other regions, other labels.” It hasn’t done him any harm: at the age of 34, Pirlo remains Italy’s footballing fulcrum.
And so here we are. A place where Footballers’ Wines isn’t just a clever play on the title of a long-since decommissioned TV show, but a small-scale cultural phenomenon. Which explains, in a roundabout way, why I’ll occasionally be popping up here linking footballers and matches with wines in a manner which smacks of a greater or lesser degree of desperation.
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