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Spit, fight, swear... and teach

Loutish soccer stars are being targeted by MPs trying to give pupils worthwhile role models, reports Graeme Paton

It may be known as the beautiful game, but football has a nasty habit of turning ugly. Swearing at the ref, spitting at opponents and even the odd on-field punch-up... it is the sort of thing seen every week in football grounds up and down the country.

But now MPs, alarmed that children are increasingly copying footballers'

behaviour in the classroom and on the school sports field, are preparing to confront what they see as an escalating problem.

A debate will be held in the House of Commons later this month in which a cross-party group of MPs will call on football's professional bodies to intervene in order to clean up the sport's image.

The move follows evidence from academics linking modern culture to children's behaviour and criticism from teaching unions that footballers such as Wayne Rooney are undermining efforts to discipline pupils.

The 20-year-old Manchester United player was banned from appearing at an English Schools Football Association cup semi-final last year for swearing at Premiership referees.

Last weekend Lee Trundle, the Swansea City striker, provoked anger after insulting his club's arch-rivals, by displaying a Welsh flag bearing the words "Fuck off, Cardiff" after the Football League Trophy final and donning a T-shirt with a cartoon showing a man urinating on a Cardiff shirt.

The House of Commons debate has been called by Graham Allen, the Labour MP for Nottingham north.

Mr Allen said: "Children go home, having had tuition at school about how to behave, and as soon as they switch on the television they see their heroes spitting, kicking, falling over, diving and jostling referees. They get the impression that it is OK to disrespect authority figures.

"Many youngsters from one-parent families do not have a male role model in their lives, so they take their lead from footballers."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, remembers when David Beckham, the England captain, had a Mohican haircut.

Mr Brookes was head of Sherwood junior school, Nottinghamshire, at the time. "The next week, all the children turned up with Mohicans as well," he said.

"It just underlined the influence that someone like that has on children.

Positive role models are great, but when they are spitting and fighting on the pitch, they really don't help teachers."

MPs from all sides are expected to attend the adjournment debate on April 18, including Richard Caborn, the sports minister.

Yesterday Mr Allen, who has led a campaign to have lessons in social behaviour included in the national curriculum, met the Football Association to press it to intervene. He even suggested that top Premiership stars should have behaviour management tuition after football training.

"Footballers train until 1pm, but what do many do with their afternoons? Not a lot," said Mr Allen.

"I think footballers' spare time could be better used trying to learn how to behave."

Footballers' behaviour has been under the media spotlight for some time.

Didier Drogba, the Chelsea forward, appeared to admit in a TV interview last month that he dives to win penalties, while El Hadj Diouf, from Bolton, was banned last season for spitting in opponents' faces. Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer, both Newcastle players, were embroiled in a punch-up in the middle of a match against Aston Villa a year ago.

A new book by Sue Palmer, former headteacher, primary consultant and TES columnist, suggests that television influences are one of the main reasons for children's deteriorating behaviour during the past 30 years.

But Dr Andrew Burn, a lecturer in media and culture at London university's institute of education, said the effect of footballers' behaviour was being exaggerated.

"In the 1950s there was huge moral panic that James Dean films would lead to the degeneration of youth," he said. "The same was said of the Beatles and certainly the Rolling Stones, but the lesson of history is that the apocalypse never happened."


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