Football/Soccer

Hoping that children's sporting heroes don't get discredited

Liverpool's Mo Salah is a hero to many - but other sports stars' images have been tarnished.

AS discussed/declared recently in this column, sports stars are role models, especially for children, whether they like it or not.

Icons to be cherished and gazed at. Treasured. My adoration for Kenny Dalglish was such that one of the few times I really remember praying earnestly for anything in my childhood was when I lost the little 'wallet' containing all my Kenny Dalglish cards. He was the only player I refused to involve in any swap deals, no matter how many identical images of him I collected.

A few days later my prayers were answered and I found it ensconced, safe and dry, in a little gap in the stone garden wall.

The world has moved on from cards you got 'free' with packets of chewing gum. Now sometimes sporting heroes are literally models.

As another step into manhood/ fatherhood, I recently bought one of those tiny replicas of soccer stars – and, mere months later, handed it over to my son, almost without any reluctance. Almost.

There was only one option for which player to buy, really.

Like a lot of children, my four-year-old son puts great store by being able to run fast.

Last year he challenged a boy several years older than him, a complete stranger, to a race in a playground; his rival laughed and scoffed but then had to pull out all the stops to sprint past a determined little Archer at the imaginary finish line.

So it hasn't been difficult to make him a Mo Salah fan. The Egyptian's distinctive hair has helped too.

My son hasn't yet joined me in any of the Mo Salah songs, but perhaps that's more to do with the quality of my singing (it's tricky to match my tone, timbre, and technique).

All that was required was mention to be made of Mo's speed, and off Akin went into a world of wonder, with that strange combination children have of thinking sports stars are likely to pop round to our house but also that they possess super-human qualities.

With the innocence of his tender age, he opined: 'If Mo Salah saw our garden, he would think it was a football pitch'. (Believe me, folks, it's really not that big, and the groundsman should be sacked for the state of the surface.)

Next, he declared: 'But if Mo Salah came into our house, he would have to walk'. (No running allowed inside, obviously).

Then he annoyed me by suggesting an 'atherium' was faster than Mo. Even though I didn't know what he was on about, I rejected this suggestion. (Turns out he was referring to some dinosaur called a Paraceratherium).

An easier question to answer came when he asked: 'Is Mo Salah as fast as a cheetah?'

'Almost', I replied. (Hero worship should still remain within the realms of truth).

Yet truth can be hard to get at.

Forgive the word-play, but too often you must now worry whether a sports star is 'a cheetah' or a cheater.

At one time I'd have considered extolling the apparent virtues of another quick runner, with roots in eastern African, with a very similar name to Liverpool's current number 11 - but doubts over Mo Farah subsequently ended that idea.

The middle/ long distance runner hasn't been found guilty of doping but the training and coaching company he has kept in the past leaves a cloud of suspicion hanging over him.

Colleagues will confirm that there's a large degree of cynicism in my DNA. I knew, just knew, that Ben Johnson was too quick to be true. I called out Lance Armstrong while many were still elbow-deep in yellow wristbands.

Yet there remains within me a desire to admire sports stars, mixed in with that cynicism. As a fan of the X-Files (before it went really bat-sugar crazy and conspiracy theory), I want to believe.

Cyclist Bradley Wiggins seemed like a good guy, a music-loving dude, but the taint of suspicion hangs over him, despite his profuse protestations of complete innocence. Chris Froome is utterly unlikeable, so there was never any danger of getting burned by him. Like Wiggins, he's been accused of the mis-use of medication in order to gain a competitive edge.

The latest sports star under the spotlight is boxer Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, who has tested positive for clenbuterol. The cause was said to be 'contaminated meat', of course…

Fortunately for me, athletics, boxing, and cycling aren't high on my list of preferred sports.

Yet it would be naïve in the extreme to think that drug cheats, or at least those pushing the boundaries beyond breaking point, don't exist in Gaelic games, rugby, and soccer.

There's so much money involved in those last two sports, so much pressure to succeed even in the GAA, that some will try something different, something extra, in order to improve their chances of success.

It's not only the risk of a move that should make you hesitate about getting a particular player's name on your team's shirt.

Too many sports stars sadly now merit that useful Scottish verdict of 'not proven'. They haven't been proven guilty, but not many people are saying they're innocent either.

Some may have feet of plastic (on a little podium) but they could also have the proverbial feet of clay.

I'm praying again now. Praying that in years to come I don't have to explain some misbehaviour or worse about Salah, that I won't be softly crooning 'Say it ain't, so, Mo...'

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