It is bizarre how often football can become analogous to life more generally. Countless times (to the dismay of my uninterested friends) I find myself able to wheedle in football anecdotes into unrelated conversations. The purpose, rather than being to bore my uncaring chums into submission, is that football often seems to throw up little areas of debate where ethical standpoints come to the fore. Yesterday, however, it was cricket that got the cogs turning. Ian Bell’s silly dismissal – and its subsequent reversal – in England’s second Test Match against India conjured up a lot of old feelings about sporting morality.
I remember clearly where the inspiration for this blog came from. Last season, there were two quick-fire incidents of Premier League goals being scored controversial fashion. First Nani’s goal for Man Utd against Spurs in spite of having blatantly fondled the ball; second was Kuyt’s goal for Liverpool against Sunderland after Torres nipped in on Michael Turner’s ‘free-kick’.
I don’t intend to instigate debate over either of those again – the dust, for the most part, has settled on those two events. But the point is simple: I was incensed, as I felt both of those goals were horribly at odds with the way sport should be conducted.
Yet conversely many people – including pretty much every television pundit – declared that it they would have ‘gotten a rollicking’ from their manager if they’d done anything else. Even worse was the insinuation that ‘we’d all do the same thing, in that circumstance’. Implicit in these voices was the idea that the exploiters were in some way passive to the affair, rather than instigating it with their action.
My first ever blog post, therefore, was originally going to be about how morals in football could take a lesson or two from cricket – however there weren’t really any contemporary examples that sprung to mind of cricketers acting in such a way that reflected the stereotypes of sport’s oft-cited ‘traditional values’. Surely the ‘bodyline’ approach that England used in the 1932/33 Ashes tour of Australia should have dispelled that falsehood?
I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t cultivated this fallacy of cricket’s intrinsic goodness in my own mind – harking back to a time before my own when an Englishman was a gentleman (wearing a top hat, naturally) and when everything could be described as ‘jolly good’ or ‘spiffing’ – and most importantly, when a sportsman was sportsmanlike. (Let’s overlook all the poverty and colonialism and cholera.)
However Bell’s dismissal and its reversal yesterday proved that sportsmanship can still sometimes be used in sports. To recap – Eion Morgan played the final delivery before tea (and scones) and ran three. Bell – who since admitted that he had been ‘naïve’ – then assumed the ball was dead and walked off the field for tea (and crumpets), only to see Abhinav Mukund remove the bails. MS Dhoni didn’t withdraw the appeal so Billy Bowden could only confirm the dismissal.
However after a meeting over tea (and cucumber sandwiches), Bell emerged at the crease to for the day’s final session after Dhoni and his team came to a last-minute decision to withdraw their appeal. Batsman Rahul Dravid summed the decision up charmingly: “It was the right thing to do. If that had happened to one of our guys we would have felt disappointed. The original decision was right in the laws of the game but not in the spirit of the game.”
Whether Dhoni would have reached that conclusion himself is debatable. Sport has become win-at-all-costs – even cricket. Maintaining the values of the sport has become a painful chore rather than instinctive reaction.
But what else can we expect? George Orwell summed it up best in his essay The Sporting Spirit. “Serious sport,” writes Orwell, “has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.”
It doesn’t have to be the way though. If I recall correctly, Martin Gould called his own foul against Neil Robertson during the 2010 World Snooker Championship – eventually losing the match – despite the infringement going unnoticed by the referee. Even under scrutiny from close-up camera shots, the commentators admitted they couldn’t see what he had done wrong – however they pored over the nobleness of the sport, where the players are whiter-than-white. (Let’s overlook the whole John Higgins thing.)
Team sports certainly don’t offer a lot of scope to being upstanding, because the pressure to win isn’t just driven by personal desire – it is a mutual burden. The lack of responsibility in individual sports is liberating – no-one else suffers from your honesty. There is no-one to answer to when you admit your mistakes. Golf, for example, prides itself on etiquette – something that Kim Jong-il probably should have been told before he marked his scorecard.
Paolo Di Canio is probably the first person that comes to mind when ‘fair play’ and ‘football’ find themselves in the same sentence. (Let’s overlook the fascism.) Seeing the striker refuse to play on while Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard is laid out injured is still, for me, a real lump-in-the-throat moment. But perhaps the fact that there hasn’t been any act to match this level of dignity in the past decade is the more worrying aspect.
The best and worst part of football is its popularity. As the only truly global game, it gets interpreted differently in all corners – and when worlds collide, cultural nuances can rear their head. David Keyes from Culture of Soccer writes a fascinating piece on the relationship between language and football.
After all, we all know what a ‘reducer’ is, don’t we? A comical turn-of-phrase to describe the obliteration of an opponent’s ankles at the earliest opportunity, as described by Ron Atkinson. (Let’s overlook the racism.) However, la plancha, as Keyes describes, is a Spanish term that describes the same offence but with a different and significantly more frowned-upon attitude.
So maybe it is naïve to expect to be able to agree on anything in the realms of football. The game offers so much to interpretation that it would be naïve to expect any level of synthesis amongst spectators. Football is played and watched by an incredibly diverse range of demographic groups, in England and worldwide.
While that can cause a friction and misunderstandings to begin with, it can act as an accessible melting pot where experiences can be shared and debated. Opinions are my own, as the generic Twitter-disclaimer states, and the same goes for you. Value-judgement that that we apply to football is no different. The game is still evolving, expanding and adapting and the rules of engagement are redrafted every time we take the opportunity to share our opinions.