A close friend of mine has a grandson aged 12 who started playing boys football at the age of 8 and showed immense natural potential – blessed by a left foot which could make the ball talk.
I asked him recently how the lad was progressing.
“Oh, he’s given up playing,” he replied. “ He simply wasn’t enjoying it – couldn’t stand the relentless verbals from coaches and parents, and was fed up getting kicked by opponents wound up from the touchline.”
Having been a football nut all my life I was shocked, and started to reflect on the state of the game.
I was reminded about the top-flight referee who described refereeing a match as “managing 22 cheats for 90 minutes and waiting for the relentless criticism to follow”.
In the modern world of football most people appear to consider the only form of cheating as being diving to win a penalty or a free-kick.
That rightly infuriates players and spectators.
Yet a deliberate foul to halt the progress of a quicker player is hailed by pundits and “experts”as “taking one for the team” or “he had no option but to bring him down”. Of course he did – he could have played within the rules – instead of cheating!
What’s the difference between diving and other forms of cheating – like shirt-pulling, deliberately pinning an opponent or a goalkeeper at a corner kick, bringing down an opponent speeding away from you, or raking studs down an opponent’s Achilles, or timewasting, or stealing yards at a throw-in, or even simply claiming a decision from the referee to which you know you are not entitled?
That’s all cheating – and in some cases, unlike diving, likely to cause injury. But everyone does it – indeed, it’s expected, even demanded.
There have, however, been shining beacons of genuine fair play.
In 1997 Robbie Fowler won a penalty for Liverpool after Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman dived at his feet at Highbury. Fowler told the referee it wasn’t a penalty – that Seaman hadn’t touched him and that he had simply stumbled going for the ball. Referee Gerald Ashby wouldn’t listen.
Seaman saved Fowler’s weak penalty, although Jason McAteer scored from the rebound.
Fowler won the UEFA Fair Play Award for his honesty, although he insisted that he hadn’t missed on purpose. He said it was simply a bad penalty. But he HAD told the referee it wasn’t a penalty.
One man who did miss on purpose was Morten Wieghorst, with whom I worked at Celtic. An excellent player – and a fine man. While skippering Denmark against Iran in 2003 he deliberately fired a penalty wide, after speakingwith his manager, Morten Olsen.
Believing the referee had whistled for half-time, an Iranian defender picked up the ball inside his penalty area. But the whistle had come from the crowd.
“It was unfair to capitalise on that,” said Wieghorst.
Denmark lost the match 1-0, but Wieghorst collected an Olympic Committee Fair Play Award. And I wonder how many managers would have reacted in the same manner as Olsen?
These incidents are so rare as to be noteworthy and to merit awards, which is surely an indictment on the game. The ethics and culture of the game are suffering badly at the hands of loutish behaviour, cheating, ruthlessness and greed.
And at least one talented 12-year-old boy has been lost to the game.