As long as they do their job well
20 December ~ "I'm not much of a football fan, really. I don't watch games on an evening or anything like that." Normally this comment would not generate attention but as it came from Premier League striker Bobby Zamora, it was a story. Ex-pros lined up in condemnation. Former QPR defender Steve Wicks described the comments as "brainless", Tony Cascarino said: "If your heart's not in it, Bobby, get out of the game". Zamora's manager, Mark Hughes, was supportive: "If there was any issue in terms of his application he wouldn't still be a professional footballer".
Hughes' stance was clear: if players act professionally, it's irrelevant what goes through their heads. Managers are employed to deliver performances, not to worry about players' whims. It's possible to not love football but still be committed to offering your best on the pitch. This idea is encapsulated in Benoit Assou-Ekotto's declaration that "whatever attitude you bring to it, it doesn't matter as long as you are 100 per cent professional".
There is something odd about a crowd of passionate fans roaring support for a player who has admitted he isn't bothered about football. For many supporters the idea of indifference to the sport is incomprehensible. Yet fans of the modern game have learned to live with the gap between the terraces and the dressing room. They struggle to pay rising ticket prices while players agonise over their next sports car. They pledge lifelong loyalty to clubs while players weigh up contract offers. Interestingly, neither Zamora nor Assou-Ekotto suffered a backlash from fans after their respective comments. That fans are willing to accept that being a footballer can be "just a job" suggests they are less idealistic than many pundits.
Given the almost universal blandness of footballer interviews, Assou-Ekotto's words were astonishingly candid. "I knew for a fact that I didn't like school and I also knew that I didn't want to work in an office where I would be paid €1,500-a-month and, at the end of my career, be able to buy a little suburban apartment or something". Is there anything offensive about a young man from a relatively poor background being driven by the desire to make a good living? It is also very hard not to respect such honesty, especially in a sport that can seem entirely devoid of it.
For some players, passion for the game is a resource that can be exhausted. Espen Baardsen, former Spurs and Norwegian international goalkeeper, retired at 25 and is now a partner at an asset management company. "I got bored of it. Once you've played in the Premier League and been to the World Cup, you've seen it and done it." While many players and managers have an insatiable desire to achieve more, Baardsen reached a stage where he was content that he'd got everything he wanted out of the game.
There are other players for whom football has always been one of competing passions. Curtis Woodhouse, an England under-21 international and £1 million signing for Birmingham, quit football to become a professional boxer. He's now the English light-welterweight champion. Woodhouse described his move to boxing as like "coming alive and doing what I always meant to do". Many talented young sportsmen find themselves having to choose between different sports. Even a relatively successful footballing career was not enough to dull Woodhouse's love of boxing. In the end, he has become a success in both sports, an achievement to be admired. Andy Ryan