PARIS – Walk through an English town or city late on a Friday night and the chances are good that you'll see people staggering drunk out of pubs, perhaps vomiting stomachs of beer into the gutter or simply passed out on the pavement. Yet, if those people include professional soccer players, the chances also are good that it could become news even if they don't have a match to play the next day. Why?
The inference is that soccer players should somehow know better, live more soberly than the fans who pay to watch them play. That kind of thinking is not without hypocrisy because, for many of those same fans, no trip to a game is complete without stopping in a pub or liquor store before or afterward.
The latest player caught in the spotlight of Britain's double fascination with both drink and soccer is Andy Carroll, the towering 22-year-old striker who, if he can only turn his obvious potential into consistent goals, could become the match winner England needs to stop going home from major championships with its tail between its legs. So far, Carroll has made just three England appearances and scored once.
Liverpool's big-spending new American owners gambled a reported $56 million at the time that Carroll can help revive the formerly dominant team when they bought him from Newcastle in January. But since then, and partly because he had injuries, the club has squeezed only 13 appearances and three goals from the bearer of its No. 9 shirt worn previously by such prolific scorers as Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler.
In short, Carroll has everything to prove.
That, unfortunately, includes apparently having to prove that he doesn't have a problem with alcohol, that he isn't destined to become simply another name on the roll call of players — Paul Gascoigne and George Best are obvious examples — remembered in Britain as much for their soccer as for the damage they inflicted on their careers and bodies with excessive drinking and partying.
Twice in the past six months, England manager Fabio Capello has seen fit to state publicly that Carroll shouldn't drink too much. The most recent example was before England beat Wales 1-0 in Euro 2012 qualifying this week. Carroll played for just four minutes at the end of that sorry performance that again suggested that Capello is still far from turning his Premier League stars into anything even close to the world-beating team England fielded way back in ... 1966.
In response to reporters' pre-match questions about Carroll, the Italian replied in his English that remains clumsy despite nearly four years in his high-paying job that the player wasn't in pristine condition and that "his style of life is a problem if you no good, because he needed to be careful, because he is important player not only for England team, also for Liverpool. I think he understand what he need to do."
"If he want to be a good player, a good sportive man, he need to drink less than the normal," Capello later added.
What Capello meant by "normal" wasn't clear. Nor is it clear why Capello feels compelled to feed the public and media fascination with Carroll's off-field life, when a simple "I'm not going to talk about that" would have killed this line of questioning stone dead. Liverpool took the wiser option of subsequently refusing to comment about what Capello had said.
But Capello is also right. Excessive alcohol consumption is not going to help any young athlete's career and he's not speaking out of turn by pointing that out. In fact, he's duty bound to make sure that England players are at their best playing for their country — which is one reason why he bans alcohol in his team camps.
Putting aside the English tabloids' lurid accounts of his supposedly late-night partying — after all, given their methods, how much of what they report really bears repeating? — Carroll has, to a certain extent, also brought attention on himself. A court last October fined him and ordered him to pay compensation after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a man at Newcastle's Blu Bambu nightclub.
And Capello, remember, is Italian, and many Italians don't drink in the same way as the English. If the English drinking culture seems alien to Capello, that could also explain why he has taken Carroll aside for a few words of fatherly advice, especially since the English tabloids are so quick to jump not only on perceived excesses by players but to report even occasions where they are spotted out having an innocent beer.
"Here a lot of people drink. It is normal here," Capello said last November. Then, picking up a mobile telephone, he added: "It can record all the time. It can take pictures. You can find everything on Facebook, et cetera. This is the worst. For this reason people can speak about this person drinking or this person being out. In Italy and Spain, I know the life of the players. They like to drink when they eat, during dinner. Not after."
So what does this all add up to when it comes to Carroll? Really, at this stage, not much. He is a young player, trying to learn his trade in a goldfish bowl of massive expectations not made easier by the big price tag on his head and by Capello talking publicly about him when he could have kept this issue private. Carroll also is a young Englishman who, like so many of those who watch him play, seems to like a drink when he's not at work. So what? Is that news? Or could this instead be more of a story about England, its drinking habits and about double standards?
"Why shouldn't players go out and get drunk? Everyone else does," former Liverpool and England star John Barnes said in a telephone interview.
"This is just binge drinking, whereby he likes to go out and drink too much and party, type of thing, so it's more of a lifestyle rather than a problem," added Barnes, who previously worked with current Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish at Celtic. "The hypocrisy comes from the public wanting to hang somebody because he went out and got drunk when it shouldn't even be an issue — as long as it's the right time."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester