The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 42

August 27, 2010

From TAG 59, Spring 2001


I’m sticking my neck out here, but I reckon that Yasser Arafat has probably been implicated in more homicides than the average TAG-reader.

Yet the bold Yasser once won the Nobel Peace prize. Nearly matching that from the ‘strange but true’ Department was the recent award of a ‘fair play‘ trophy to Paulo Di Canio. Paulo had hitherto been known for his somewhat less than Corinthian approach to the game, his career having been liberally laced with unsavoury incidents, culminating in the felling of a referee, an event which very nearly led to his complete ban from football altogether. So, what was it that converted this mad dog into an Englishman? The answer is a single act of ‘fair play’ consisting of him deliberately catching the ball in his hands rather than attempting to score while the opposition goalkeeper lay on the ground apparently injured. Bravo, Paulo!!

A commit­tee was quickly formed by the kind of people who form committees for this sort of thing, and it was decided that Di Canio’s sportsmanship was worthy of an honour. Meanwhile, the comments of Paulo’s manager were not capable of being widely reported, consisting as they did of a flurry of four letter expletives, the gist of it being that he’d have preferred a goal for West Ham than a trinket for Di Canio. This whole incident was just the most high profile example of what I think is an increasingly undesirable development in the game, namely the excessive and pious demonstrations of apparent sportsmanship which lead to the game being stopped deliberately while a player who is usually barely injured receives treatment.

Now, please don’t get me wrong here. I’m the kind of ‘hello flowers, hello sky‘ sort of person who wishes we all lived in a better world where everyone was nice to each other, and sport was played in accordance with a code of ethics which all respected. Such a code would require play to be stopped whenever a player went down injured, and of course the code would require players not to feign injury in order to take advantage of the foregoing provision. It would also require players not to commit deliberate fouls, not to dive in the box looking for a penalty, not to tug opponent’s shirts, not to claim for throw-ins or corners when they know it should go the other way, not to indulge in time-wasting tactics, not to overact with a view to having an opponent cautioned, not to argue with (or assault) the referee. In short, it would require players not to cheat. Well, fat fucking chance of that. See if you can spot how many of the other parts of the ideal code Paulo ‘fair play’ Di Canio regularly infringes.

The business of stopping the game, usually by knocking the ball out for a throw-in, to allow treat­ment to an injured player, is a comparatively recent innovation, having first been demonstrated to a mass audience during a World Cup in the early Nineties, if memory serves.

The precedent set in that match contained two elements. Firstly, the ball was knocked out of play to allow treatment to an opponent, who was apparently seriously injured. Even an old cynic like myself could see some intrinsic merit in that. But to complete the heartwarming scene, the second element was integral whereby, with the ensuing throw-in, the opposition returned possession of the ball to the side that had put it out in the first place. Hello flowers, hello trees, hello sky.

Was this the cue for a new enlightened age? Were football players about to cast off long established traditions of cheating and gamesmanship, and embrace a new era of decency and sportsmanship? Eh, no.

Suddenly, every erstwhile cheating bastard found a ready-made way to redeem past sins and get an appreciative round of applause into the bargain by casually side-footing the ball out of play when somebody who’d stubbed their toe went into an elaborate dying swan routine. This fashion became so quickly incorporated into the game that any player who failed to comply was roundly vilified by the crowd. At the slightest hint of a player tweaking any part of his anatomy, out goes the ball, on comes the physio, who of course discovers that there’s fuck all wrong with the allegedly injured party, the ball is then thrown very melodramatically to the other team, and the spectators clap like trained monkeys.

Somewhere in this surfeit of everyone feeling good about themselves a truly ludicrous dimension was added whereby if a team put the ball out in order to gain treatment for one of their own side, then the opposition were still morally bound to give them the ball back at the throw-in.

Now, let’s examine this. Your opponent is down injured. You put the ball out even though it will probably be to your advantage to play on against a depleted opposition. That could reasonably be described as ‘sportsmanship’. Fucking irritating, but sporting. The returning of the ball to you by your opponent at the throw-in is a simple recognition of your sportsmanship.

On the other hand, if it’s one of your own team who’s on the deck and you put the ball out, then that’s a purely short-term tactical decision, which is specifically designed to benefit your team, and could fairly be described as ‘gamesmanship‘. Why on earth should your opponent be required to compound the advantage you have deliberately sought by giving you the ball?

A couple of years ago in a Champions League match between Monaco and Rangers, an incident occurred which briefly threatened to ignite significant indiscipline amongst players of both sides. A Rangers player was felled by a heavy foul challenge, and the poor soul was apparently suffering some temporary discomfort. Play continued for a few seconds before another Rangers player put the ball out of play to allow the injured party to receive treatment. Perfectly appropriate, perfectly reasonable, perfectly laudable, but perfectly self-serving and selfish. When play resumed Monaco took the throw-in and, horror of horror, threw the ball to their own side who promptly set up an attack which resulted in them gaining a corner.

Players of both sides then engaged in discussion, apparently about the ethics of what had just occurred, and for a short time things looked like they might get right out of hand. In fact, the Rangers player who had been ‘injured’ was young Barry Ferguson, and miraculously young Bazza had recovered sufficiently to play a vigorous leading role in the ensuing debate. The situation was defused by a Monaco player deliberately kicking the corner out of play, thus returning the ball to Rangers.

What I found interesting about this whole farce was that the Rangers players were so insistent on Monaco behaving ‘sportingly’ that they were prepared to fight about it. “Aw, c’mon lads, play the game in the proper sporting spirit… or we’ll kick fuck oot ye”.

Against everything which I’ve said above, it might be protested that the purpose of putting the ball out is to allow attention to a seriously injured player, and that the current protocol is a necessary safety-valve to protect the welfare of the players.

Well, Mrs Meldrew, I don’t believe it.

If a player has obviously sustained a health-threatening injury then the referee can, and occasionally does, stop play immediately. The laws of the game allow for this. Law 5 indicates that the referee shall have discretionary power to stop the game for any cause. We’ve all seen this happen, particularly when there’s been a clash of heads, and one or more players remain grounded. I’m prepared to concede that in the limited instance where a player is obviously seriously injured and the referee has not stopped the play, then there’s a moral obligation on the player in possession to put the ball out (though since that happens less regularly than Hearts winning a trophy, we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves over much with it).

Otherwise, I can do without the self-righteous posturing which accompanies trivial injuries, and which has become a feature of practically every game you watch nowadays. It is strange that this throw-in business is more or less the only instance one could offer if asked to give examples of sportsmanship in professional football.

In a sport notori­ous for its lack of any of the common decencies, where players spend their time gouging, tugging, kicking, and elbowing others, diving in the box, fraudulently claiming corner kicks and throw-ins, over-acting to have opponents cautioned, and generally taking every opportunity to cheat which presents itself, the prime example of sportsmanship involves the taking of a throw-in. Do us a favour.

But, in any case, have you, in fact, ever seen a player receive a serious (as in life-threatening) injury? Over the years there’s been a few, but the vast majority of players who go down injured have got sod all wrong with them.

Almost all ‘injuries’ are the kind of thing the ladies netball team would take in their stride with barely a whimper.

Many three minute stoppages are occasioned by nothing more serious than wounded pride. Since almost all of these ‘injuries’ are either completely bogus or are trivial, then the stoppage of play, and subsequent charade of ostentatious returning of the ball is all completely unnecessary.

For the reasons outlined above, I applauded Monaco for what they did in the match with Rangers. However, the alleged ‘sportsmanship’ factor is now so firmly entrenched that it is difficult for teams to go it alone in defying the ridiculous convention, since all the other ‘sportsmen’ and their ‘sporting’ supporters profess outrage. Why, even Archie McPherson was tut-tutting about it.

Perhaps the football authorities should make it explicitly clear that there is no obligation, legal or moral, to return the ball when a team has put the ball out to allow treatment to one of their own players. If they don’t do that then sooner or later there will be a major incident.

In fact, there already has been. Remember the Arsenal cup-tie a few years ago which had to be replayed because Arsenal scored a goal from one of these situations, later agreeing that the goal was ‘morally wrong’.

Strewth ! !


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