Tuesday, 25 May 2010

British Football - A Sporting Rant

By Shane Thomas

Ah, to be a blogger. A lot of it consists of surrounding yourself with information about your respective subject matter (sport, politics, the Lost finale) and then disregarding it all as pure twaddle. Taking the codes and conventions of whatever you have decided to blog about and thinking that you can do better than other people. This often results in rhetoric known as 'the rant'. Well given that football has been a major part of my life for 23 years, here's my rant about problems that I have with the current state of 'the beautiful game'.

Dirty Cheating Foreigners?

Throughout the past season, The Daily Mail newspaper ran a campaign for diving or 'simulation' - to give it its correct term - to be eradicated from the game. There were photos of two players indulging in examples of alleged simulation on The Mail's website to illustrate their point. The players? Arsenal's Eduardo Da Silva and Liverpool's David N'Gog. A Croatian/Brazilian and a Frenchman. Not Wayne Rooney, who was booked for diving in Manchester United's defeat at Old Trafford to Aston Villa. Not Steven Gerrard who... well if I was to list the amount of times that he has gone down when barely being touched I wouldn't be able to rant about anything else here.

As well as showing up The Daily Mail's propensity to paint all things foreign in an antagonistic light, the sad fact is that the press often reflect popular opinion. And far too many people who watch football are happy to believe that the majority of players who come from abroad to play in Britain are glorified mercenaries. Players who would not think twice about breaking the rules of the game to gain an advantage, who are only in England for the riches provided by The Premier League's clubs. People who have no love for the game and no connection to the fans or fabric of their particular club sides.

But it goes even deeper than this. It relates to how some people in this country view the rest of the world, a view exacerbated by Britain's tabloid press. It's a well-worn cliche that Britain is the land of fair play. And if Britain is where fair play resides, then by extension it is conspicuous by its absence elsewhere.

Well enough. Stop it. Stop it now. While it is arguable that other football cultures are more susceptible to certain unsavoury aspects of the sport, to brand any non-British footballer as a dirty, cheating foreigner is outright xenophobia, pure and simple. And Britain is hardly in a state to moralise to other nations. While diving and gamesmanship are undignified, its preferable to some of the overzealous tackles that we see often see in the UK. While the aforementioned Eduardo was pilloried for his dive against Celtic last August, I find that eminently preferable to him having his leg broken by someone who doesn't know how to tackle properly. Have we conveniently forgotten the challenge from Martin Taylor that put Eduardo on the shelf for almost a year? While the Arsenal man has managed to play again, he has never been the same player since. But why worry about him losing the best years of his professional life. He's only a dirty, cheating foreigner.

The Minorities

New Prime Minister David Cameron started his campaign for Number 10 in Leeds, making a speech in which he referred to the 'great ignored'. Now while paraphrasing Mr Cameron made me vomit in my mouth a little bit, there are three cross-sections of society that seem to be ignored in the world of football. Women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

Football is the most popular sport globally, and yet, intentionally or otherwise, it seems restricted for particular pockets of society. Britain is a country that prides itself on its tolerance and diversity. Yet there is a marked absence of women, gay people and ethnic minorities. Yes, ethnic minorites - I know black players populate the UK leagues and national sides. But how often do you see people of Asian descent being cheered on from the stands? Sadly Manchester United's South Korean midfielder, Ji-Sung Park is the exception, and not the rule.

But Britain has been subject to immigration for decades now. While I hear the explanation that immigrants from Asian countries have an inherent insularity, and they would rather play football amongst themselves, that argument holds no water. If that was the case then you wouldn't see people who hail from the Eastern side of the globe working in other industries in this country. And yet no eyebrows are raised when an Asian works in an office block or in the retail industry.

Maybe there's still institutionalised prejudice in football? Whatever the reason is, the FA have a responsibility to take football to all parts of the country. How many Asian children must watch their favourite players on Sky Sports and yet feel that their dream of playing at the highest level is fantasy because the system isn't in place to take talented Asian children and process their talent in the same way that helped to launch the likes of Theo Walcott or Adam Johnson. Not only would it set a laudable example of inclusion, but it's simple probability that the wider range of players you have to choose from, the more likely that your country's football will improve.

The exclusion of women and homosexuals however, is not an issue of increasing standards of competition but increasing standards of moral decency. It stands to reason that football players, like all sportspeople, will be somewhere near their peak of physical condition. Someone who is capable of more than the ordinary person on the street, approaching levels of superhuman ability. Well it seems that to be born gay or a woman doesn't fit in to that ideal. We see it in today's society, "Women can't throw" or "Man up, don't be such a faggot"!

Now I'm not suggesting that we should have professional teams that mix the genders, or that increased tolerance will result in more women taking part in the game. But the general apathy shown towards this issue is alarming. While Sky and the BBC have made strides - albeit very small ones - in making women's football more accessible to the British public, the FA have been dragging their feet on having a professional league in England, a promise they made years ago.

Also, in the history of football in Britain, which has lasted over a century, only one man - Justin Fashanu - publicly came out as gay. He was ostracised, discredited and even disowned by members of his own family as a result. Fashanu's tragic tale came to an end, when he took his own life in May 1998. This is still football's only encounter with homosexuality and the sport said, "P*** off you bender, we don't want your sort around here"!

The UK cannot call itself a tolerant society when this attitude is allowed to flourish in what is our national sport. The players union (the PFA) has over 4,000 members. How many of them are forced to conceal who they are for fear of the same treatment that Fashanu endured?

Britain has by and large managed to eradicate the vile racist chanting from supporters that was commonplace back in the 1970's & 80's. However, homophobic abuse is still not a rarity in the stadia and pubs where spectators see fit to vent their frustrations with their team's performance. As well as being illegal, this behaviour is a cancerous growth that shames all who are involved in football.

The Spineless Men Of Soho

As well as the foolish actions of the now former FA Chairman, Lord David Triesman, English football's governing body are increasingly becoming a punchline amongst the fans and media. So what's my beef with them? The mess they made of Wembley Stadium, a ground that has a pitch which resembles an allotment, ticket prices that have made the place a corporate hang-out rather than an arena for the genuine football supporter, and a structure which aspired to be the finest football ground in the world and isn't even the best in North London?

No, not that. Maybe it's the fact that the FA only govern the top level of the English game in title only, as the organisation is essentially in the pocket of the Premier League - a state of affairs that led the Chief Executive Ian Watmore to resign in frustration at the lack of power that the FA actually wields?

Guess again. How about their constant dallying over the building of the National Football Centre. A place which exists to ensure that England are suitably prepared to give young players and coaches the right footballing education needed to make this country a leading power in the game. A place which is still yet to be built, after a hiatus that stretches back to the 1998 World Cup?

No, not even that, my rant against them concerns something that I view as even more harmful than poor money management or lacklustre administration.

The FA have the power to retrospectively take action against players who fall foul of the laws of the game, but do so out of the sight of the referee. So if Darren Fletcher was to stamp on a fellow player behind the referee's back, the FA can use video technology to punish Fletcher, probably banning him for a number of games. Seems fair, does it not? Well there's a caveat involved. The FA say they can only take action if the match official did not see the incident. So if Fletcher was to stamp on a player in view of the ref, Fletcher could possibly get away with this misdemeanour if the man in charge fails to apply the rules of the game correctly.

What an absolute crock. This hypothesis would mean that Fletcher (or any other player, I don't mean to single out the Scot) would be rewarded for refereeing incompetence. The above was an incident that I just made up. The following however, actually happened.

On the 8th November 2008, the Barnsley striker, Ian Hume sustained a fractured skull in a match against Sheffield United. This was caused by him being elbowed in the head by the United defender, Chris Morgan. Now this was no accident. The incident has been repeated on television many times, and Morgan - who is not a footballer, but a vicious thug who masquerades as a footballer - is seen to have deliberately elbowed Hume in the side of the head. Hume was knocked unconscious and rushed to hospital. He needed emergency surgery as not only his career, but his life was in severe jeopardy. Thankfully the surgery was successful but Hume lost nine months of his career as a result of the sickening assault. And I care little of how emotive my language is, look the incident up on YouTube. It was an assault.

So it's clear as day on a video replay. Surely retrospective action was taken? Not a bit of it. The FA proceeded to give one of the best Pontius Pilate impressions I have ever seen. They absolved themselves from making a decision on Morgan, as the referee had seen the incident in question, and adjudicated that a free-kick in Barnsley's favour was sufficient.

A free-kick?? For what was frighteningly close to manslaughter on the pitch?? A man nearly died taking part in what's meant to be a game, and the only punitive measure taken was the award of a free-kick. Question the FA on this and they'll respond that they can't make alterations to a referee's decision as it'll discredit the officials as a result. Now while my riposte to that is, "who cares, as long as justice is done", this is actually disingenuous. Last month, in the Champions League semi-final match between Bayern Munich & Lyon, Bayern's Franck Ribery was sent-off for a reckless tackle on Lyon's Portugese striker, Lisandro Lopez. The challenge was indeed a dangerous one, and general consensus agreed with the referee's decision. Ribery was also banned for one match as a result of his red card.

Now UEFA are the organisation in charge of the Champions League, and after reviewing the incident again, they felt that the severity of Ribery's tackle warranted a three-match suspension. This resulted in Ribery missing out on playing in the final, and while Bayern appealed against the ruling, they were unsurprisingly unsuccessful. Again, if you look up the challenge online you'll see how negligent the tackle was. Consensus once again agreed with UEFA's decision.

Now not only was justice done here, but it should have larger ramifications. Such strict measures will discourage players from tackling each other in a careless manner that can cause serious injury and maybe even end careers. And UEFA's ruling did not result in the referee of the aforementioned match becoming a laughing stock. Just behaviour promotes more just behaviour. The callowness shown by the FA isn't only doing the domestic game a disservice but means that they are neglecting the duty of care they have to all of England's professional players.

The Luddites in Power

Allow my ire to stretch further than just Britain for a moment. Earlier in this season, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that while he was at the helm, there would be no chance of video technology being used to assist referees during a game. This decision was made in the midst of the furore after France forward Thierry Henry's illegal handball that ensured France qualified for the World Cup at Ireland's expense.

Now it's obvious to many that a 'video official' could have not only spotted the handball immediately but also could have electronically alerted the referee, who could have then taken the appropriate action. While the pace that football is played at means that technology cannot be used for all contentious calls, but can be used for ones where shades of grey are absent, e.g. the ball crossing the line or whether a foul took place inside the penalty area or not. This can only serve to improve the game. What is most infuriating is not the rejection of technological assistance as a concept by FIFA. It's the obstinate refusal to even countenance it. And I may have an idea why this is.

In the last World Cup Final in 2006, Frenchman Zinedine Zidane was sent off for headbutting Italy's Marco Materazzi. This made worldwide news, with even David Letterman making a joke about it on his chat show. Do you have any idea how the referee spotted what Zidane did?

He didn't. It was the fourth official, who was looking at a monitor by the side of the pitch. After spotting Zidane's misdemeanour, he notified the ref, who made the right decision and brandished the red card.

So then, technology was used, justice was done and Italy went on to win the World Cup. However, ask any FIFA official what happened and they will flatly deny that there were any external influences involved in the decision to send Zidane from the pitch on that night in Berlin. And then, in last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, the excrement really hit the blades of a whirring fan.

In a match between Brazil and Egypt, English referee Howard Webb incorrectly awarded Brazil a corner kick after a shot from their centre-half, Lucio, was handled on the line. The fourth official spotted this on the pitchside television monitor, informed Webb, and a penalty was awarded. The successful spot-kick was converted and an enraged Egyptian side lost the match 4-3. Their complaint to FIFA was rejected, with world football's governing body claiming that the decision was made by purely organic means. Really now? So I suppose it was coincidence that a furious Sepp Blatter demanded that all television monitors should be removed forthwith from pitchside.

What Blatter's gripe is with referees receiving assistance is a mystery to me. What is certain however, is that his antiquated dogmatism is hurting the game, and it will take a major miscarriage of justice to happen to a major footballing nation before anything might be done. Ireland were just unfortunate enough to be a second-tier footballing country. If Blatter wants the sport to be a time capsule so much then maybe we should lock him in one and fire him off into space. It doesn't look like happening any time soon but the quicker this clown is removed from office the better.

Persona vs Ability

This is maybe the thing that annoys me the most about football, and sport in general. And it has nothing to do with the players. It's the spectators. Yes, you. The people who cheer and shout abuse, lionise and lambast. Time and time again, a player who has a positive public image is regarded as a hero, whereas one who is looked upon as a bad role model is treated as being a symptom of all that's wrong with Britain. A year ago, John Terry was seen as Mr England, captain of club and country, local hero, a man who would put his body on the line for the good of his team, an all-round good egg.

Then when the story broke about his marital infidelities with a woman who was romantically involved with a team-mate and friend, the perception of Terry irrevocably changed. Now he's seen as a morally bankrupt individual and a disgrace who is not fit to play for England.

So what changed? Essentially nothing. But who cares? John Terry, Ashley Cole = Scum. End of.

But here's the truth that people would rather not accept. Footballers, or any sportsperson for that matter, don't owe you a thing apart from their best effort when they take to the field of play. Leave their personalities out of it. You don't know them, they're not your friend. No footballer plays for the fans, they play to satiate their own desire for success. And nothing more should be expected from them. You're simply lucky that their desire to succeed happens to coincide with your desire to see your particular team do well.

I know I've touched on this subject before, but I will continue to do so until football fans see sense. There is NO, I repeat NO direct corollary between one's athletic prowess and the content of their character. So feel free to pass judgement on Ashley Cole's defending during the World Cup but leave the pontificating about him and 'Princess Cheryl' to the moronic rags and their half-witted readers that have nothing better to focus their attention on.

Woah, that was a long post. I obviously had a lot of stuff that I was steamed about. That was quite cathartic. Now that I'm suitably vented, I can relax now and look forward to the World Cup.

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  1. Great, great post. I especially agree with regarding the persona thing. It seems preposterous that John Terry should lose the England captaincy when his ability to lead the national team has not changed one iota. And that's coming from a West Ham fan!

    And, as a rugby union and American football fan, I of course am in favour of either more officials or use of video technology.

  2. Actually I would call in to question about Terry's ability lead in light of that story because it may have damaged his relationship with his follow players. Really I think it should have been their decision. Agreed about everything else though