Tuesday 17 February ~
The career of the "good professional" top-flight footballer is a curious one. They are the players who, despite their crucial significance in a team, spend more or less entire seasons in the shadows while plaudits are poured consistently upon their more exciting, headline-grabbing team-mates. Occasionally, though, they do have their moment in the Sun – however to achieve it they are required to do something extraordinary, such as scoring the derby winner in the last minute or performing very highly over a run of ten or so matches, before Mark Lawrenson quickly name-checks them at the very end of his post-match analysis. For those pundits who churn out the same old "good pro" line every other week, Tim Cahill creates a problem.
He has never received more than he has worked for. And yet he is also the star of his team, and this puts him in a rare situation. He has earned his star status, maintaining his endearing humility throughout his career, from Sydney FC to Millwall in 1997 and on to his £1.5 million move to Goodison Park in 2004. David Moyes compares his influence at Everton to that of Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, but his absence from the top-four glare makes him appear more grounded. He became the first player to score for Australia in a World Cup and Asian Cup, soaring him to celebrity status down-under. When he notched his seventh goal of the season for Everton against Aston Villa in the Cup last weekend he ditched his "boxing the corner flag" routine to pay tribute to his countrymen suffering in the turmoil of the Australian bush fires, which have so far claimed over 200 lives. It was not a PR stunt.
"Football means nothing when situations are going on like this," he said. "The celebration was to tell the people in Australia that I'm mourning. I'm very emotional." This was evident in midweek when Australia left Japan with a draw to keep them two points clear at the top of their World Cup qualifying group. It was a tough trip for the squad psychologically, but aside from calling off the match, the best they could do was to bare black armbands. "We will fight on together," said Cahill after the game. "That's what we do. The army, the prime minister, cricket – every single sport – is involved in it in Australia." He and his international colleagues have several fundraising events planned ahead of the home game against Uzbekistan in April.
Every so often the press accidentally stumbles upon a player using their privileged position for good. Ex-Villa and Reading full-back Ulises de la Cruz was born in one of Ecuador's poorest provinces – one which produced seven of the starting line-up of the country’s 2006 World Cup team. Besides sending ten per cent of his weekly wage back to Valle del Chota, which doesn't even appear on many maps, he also founded FundeCruz to raise aid for the village. He generated a few thousand pounds through supporters one matchday, and the Supporters' Trust at Reading (STAR) has a facility whereby fans can still donate to the cause. Then there was the inspirational Iraqi national side, who after years of suffering under Saddam Hussein utilised their Asia Cup win in 2007 to demand respect for their country and a change in the attitudes of reckless world leaders.
The media uses the popularity of the game to achieve results in its own way, without the sense of genuine selfless endeavour. ITV's next SoccerAid event, together with its cringeworthy week-long build up to what on its website it bafflingly calls "the most exciting football match of the year", can't be far around the corner. Most Premier League stars are all too ready to believe the hype that surrounds them, so Tim Cahill's words and actions are something worth remembering. Chris Towers