And so it goes on, dispiritingly. The interminable flopping and falling and ‘drawing’ of precious contact. The denial of the *actual* aim of the sport – which is to stick the ball in the net – through the cynical, life-blood-sucking phoney faint; because percentage-wise, penno’s pay.
Plus, (part XIV to-the-power-of-b-over-z-squared; The Case Against) there’s all this holding in the box. Not just a sly gathering of a corner of nylon but an absolute wrestle, as though there are no cameras, no ref and no reason moral or otherwise why you can’t try to bully the striker to a standstill or hoik him away from the arc of the ball; bizarre as well as appalling.
As if it wasn’t enough to poison the allegedly beautiful game on the park, reaction to this stuff brings out the worst in us all. (By the way, the thought does strike that we’ve gotten away lightly so far in terms of violence erupting either in the stands, between players or even against the referee but surely the time will come when a particularly enraging example of diving or holding will dangerously or tragically combust a cup-tie/relegation decider? Meaning we really do need to start dealing with this. By the way.)
There’s an unholy and delusional matrix around this that points us towards low expectation or worse; I find myself counting down the paragraphs before the dreary conclusion that ‘we get what we deserve’. I say this because following any incident fans as well as managers tend to divide so crudely, illogically and indeed pathetically on party or club lines. It’s embarrassing in a bad (unreasonable) way and it’s anti-sport.
In the case of Shawcross yesterday – that same Shawcross who molested his opponent relentlessly, pre the penalty, presumably not just to prevent him from attacking the ball but also in the hope (the hope!) that he may eventually strike out and be banished from the field – the incident was clearly and correctly dealt with by the officials. And yet on phone-ins and elsewhere the Stoke Faithful were bawling their grievances against that decision. We know that Mark Hughes (great footballer, depressingly flawed human) traditionally sets the bar shockingly low post-incident, but Sparky led the way on this, excelling himself whilst shamelessly ‘protecting his player’.
Hughes effectively said both Shawcross and more ludicrously Moses had been sinless. Whilst we can all appreciate the urge to support your tribe this went right past scandalous economy with the truth. For Hughes to try to make an intelligent argument against the unanswerable realities that Shawcross tugged and held absurdly long and that Moses shamelessly dived was, as an Australian cricket captain might have said, distinctly average.
If we choose to look for them there are always pro and contra-complexities. Moses was touched by the hand of the defender; Shawcross was by no means alone in his transgression across the boundaries of hugging. Therefore Hughes could formulate his apology, his simulation of a theory. But more broadly and more subtly, is the art of defending not about big clunky guys baulking shifty and spry opponents and should the spirit of things then not enable a kind of levelling of the playing field? How else could Shawcross (say) compete against Di Maria (say?)
This is of course cobblers. For any single offence, a single judgement is being made, not a philosophically inviolable summing up of the nature of things football. Do something outside the laws – get punished. Complexity comes (and ideally goes) through the official’s instinctive reading of the motivation of players at the moment in question and cross-reference of the rules. Referee: was that defender in making minor contact doing everything to avoid contact? So choose. Was that attacker only ever interested in drawing a penalty? So blow and reach for the yellow. These are a couple of the areas of difficulty, questions which launch a zillion unseemly appeals each weekend.
The fact that time and again the same few offences stir the nation to a Neanderthal fury should be a clue to something but if the cause is generally evident the path to resolution is fraught. In fact there is no path. Refs good and bad are left floundering under abuse.
Why? Essentially because honesty has gone walkabout. These players, these coaches are sporting superstars we cannot trust. They will neither accept the truth nor respect the authority charged with judging what is true. Set aside for the moment the fact that mistakes are bound to be made by those who make the calls; players and managers have made the game ungovernable and they should be deeply, deeply ashamed of the fact. They forget that they are role models; they forget that they are amongst the most fortunate; they forget that the real glory of sport centres upon competitiveness with honour. Or does it?
Does cheating matter? Does backing your side at all costs, even if reality and Alan Shearer contradict you matter? Or is it merely the inevitable result of awesomely high profiles and awesome TV revenues… and anyways, the next game’s here, so get real and get over it, right?
Are these merely the contemporary facts? That the game is simply framed differently, so that the respect of your opponent is an utter irrelevance to the current player? Is that right, is that how it is – or just some weird code nudging us towards giving up on sportsmanship?
I know how much of this sounds, how uncool and unsustainable it seems to invoke traditional virtues but still I consider myself more of a contemporary geezer than some dreamer of halcyon dreams. As such I call for modern solutions as well as a common return to a sense of what’s fair and right. Fat chance of the latter but no excuses now for not establishing immediate assistance to the referee from video review; retrospective guidance and where necessary punishment for acts of cheating under a beefed-up Ungentlemanly Conduct law, overseen by a small, expert panel.*
However viscerally any of us feel the drift to amorality it’s no good merely mithering on that. That language may no longer be intelligible so let’s characterise the state we’re in as a challenge. One where the chief protagonists are chiefly bent, either on some short-cut to victory, or just bent. No option then but to dictate; impose short sharp shocking doodahs – meaning bans for weeks rather than meaningless fines – and hope that in their inaction they might stop to think.
*Those who haven’t read me on this before may not be aware I’ve been promoting this notion that an expanded Ungentlemanly Conduct law could be used to penalise divers/cheats/fellahs who just did something that ain’t good for the game. I think it could work.