Previously I have made heartfelt but no doubt ludicrous generalisations about TeamGBsters being better people than say… Rio Ferdinand, the Olympics having shown up the inadequacies of our football stars through the inconsiderate revelation of dee-lightful rowing chap after unassumingly lush cyclistess. Rio – a deliberately relatively inoffensive choice, as it ‘appens – in interview, would stand no chance against… well… against any of them. Imagine the poor fellah pitched into some comparison with (specimen-of-all-specimens?) Katherine Grainger. Nuff sed.
I hope to move on from this unlicensed judgementalism by getting further into the issue of, the contrasts re respect in sport. This is something even I slightly fear threatens to align me with a currently mercifully subterranean (to-the-point-of-imaginary, actually) arch-conservative group fronted by that former decathlete now eminent flopster/middle distance scapegoat Michael Gove but such are the dangers of the hunt for the righteous . (On that political orientation thing I will just confirm that my own lunacy tends to spring awkwardly from the softish left rather than the anal right.) However because footballers do seem to have no respect and this does I think draw more flak than almost any other complaint against yer Rooney and yer Terry, stuff must surely be said. About respect. But… respect for what?
Broadly, the Olympians – our Olympians, for let’s be honest, we didn’t see too much of the rest of the world’s – were universally received as beacons of treble-fabulous good; partly, surely, because of the obvious contrast with footballers? Wherever you looked there was modesty and rounded good-humour of the sort last seen in football circa 1953 when some bloke called Matthews skipped round a bewildered First Division whilst supping mild, knitting nightcaps and discovering the potato; all to general hat-throwing acclaim.
Now the accuracy or validity of any emotion against shallowness, arrogance and disturbing unworldliness amongst footballers may be open to debate. It is nevertheless certain that large chunks of us – even those who consider ourselves fans – feel they behave, in the widely used vernacular, like wankers. This is often due to their petulance or lack of respect for officials. We understand that players have in the moment some urgent need to express disappointment or to otherwise ‘react’. It does not follow that this reaction might need to be so essentially cheap.
In rugby circles the drama-queendom and simulation in soccer means coaches tear into footballers for precisely these shameful or cynical episodes – acting or disrespectful and inflammatory celebrations being particularly offensive to the rugby community. Coaches in the 15-man game do routinely warn their own players against such dishonour, such poncification – I know, in coaching rugby myself, I have done this.
So it really is true that footballers are held in contempt by many in the rugby community. How many of them appreciate this, I wonder? Or feel the moral depth of that contempt? Would such awareness make any difference? Unknowable – so let’s get back to rules; respect.
First I should probably mention that for those unfamiliar with footielaw (and footie does have Laws not Rules, interestingly or not) Law 12 now includes what was previously recognised as the Ungentlemanly Conduct Law. Now if I understand it correctly kindof subsumed into Fouls and Misconduct, this throwback to the age of honour and imperial plunder is still in use for discretionary expression by refs and, more commonly, though with little discretion, in the bullshitfest that is general discussion and punditry around the game. I think it’s chronically under-used potential reiner-in of modern ills.
For surely this anachronistic, slightly pompous-sounding Ungentlemanly Conduct thing has rather a lot going for it – or could have – alongside its weirdly inappropriate non-PCness, which we need to recognise.
For one thing it unashamedly implies a kind of moral compass; suggesting in its dangerously dated manner that some woolly goodness, some reflection even may be beneficial to the game. (A note here that perhaps you don’t need to be a misogynist traditionalist necessarily to applaud transgenerational sporting values.) Secondly, its non-specificity lends itself to flexibility and discretion. Thirdly, football needs something to latch onto, some cause to cling to or gather around and it may be that post a wonderfully enervating/invigorating and sporting Olympics this notion of good or ‘gentlemanly’ conduct might just help football re-brand. It certainly might help those trying to keep the thing in order.
So let’s just contemplate again, specifically, this thing football has with referees, with its ‘bastards in black’ and on this occasion I promise to jink Steve Coppell-style outside considerations of race before arcing in my devastating cross/theory thing.
We can get a grip on them – referees – there’s something really grabbable in both physical and conceptual terms about their starchy, often geeky authoritarianism drawing them in to our malevolent clutches. They are an almost reassuringly resented presence in football –uniquely so? – there being an extraordinary hostile confluence of opinion upon their role, their nature even. (But that’s weird, right?)
Led with extravagant charmlessness by the top players and the managers, we the footie public at large – watching either semi-naked on some frosted terrace or listening in to Allan Green whilst our Porsches scoot silently through leafy Mayfair – love to abuse them. We love to abuse them psychotically in fact, with the fullness of our hearts for… for being the ref.
There is a thesis to be written on this alone, this murderous international antipathy to that bloke or woman in the middle; whatever they do; however, pretty much, they do it.
Later, dwarlings, later…
The quality of the abuse of referees in football is peculiarly obscene and its occurrence peculiarly prevalent. It never ends. The players are obviously and enormously culpable in this, as are the managers and there seems to be no significant will from any direction to curb this wholly degrading aspect of the game.
Let me be clear on this. In 2012 swearing is barely an issue – or at least not an issue of the import of racism or homophobia for example. But swearing aggressively and repeatedly and abusively at a referee or an official is. It’s truly an offence in the wider sense of the word and I find it extraordinary that it still goes relatively unpunished season after season.
Very few players are ever actually sent off or banned following such outbursts, yet we see them in gruesome, fulsome high definition in almost every match as players react appallingly to unfavourable decisions. And I know players are under more pressure in the modern game – truly, they are – the exposure being massively greater, the rewards being financially greater. This is no way, however, excuses a disgracefully poor level of discipline amongst players and managers in this regard.
Pity the referees – support the referees I say – with video playback and meaningful assistance from an empowered fourth official and beyond. Currently the man in the middle is utterly undermined by dishonesty and malcontent all around. He or she is there, the Martians have concluded, to collect our madnesses; like some spitbowl for the twisted soul of humanity. And they are in black.
With both a million years of dodgy symbolism and John Terry railed up against them, what chance do referees have?
Well how about if they had a panel of respected footiefolks in their corner? And what if that panel reviewed obviously controversial or mishandled incidents with a view to issuing correctives in the form of warnings or bans to those guilty of (say?) bringing the game into disrepute?
If this group of Goodies riding in to save footie from itself really were concerned to aggressively promote sportsmanship as well as good decision-making, might it even be appropriate for them to use the moniker The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct? Thereby staking a claim on that apparently unnaproachably difficult playing surface… The Higher Ground.
People… there’s more to come on this.