For many years in British football we have comforted ourselves with the fallacy that despite our dreadful record at international level, our game is imbued with a deep sense of fair play and decency that allows us to sit in judgment of the rest of the world’s players with a haughty sense of moral superiority.
There is a lazy (or convenient) tendency in the British game to think that diving and gamesmanship is down to conniving, cheating foreigners. The recent xenophobic rant from baseball capped moral crusader Tony Pulis continues a long British tradition of kidding ourselves into believing that we are morally superior whilst indiscriminately slandering every other nationality on the planet. For a further insight into the English footballing psyche it is worthwhile to cast your mind back to John Terry’s contribution to the argument. He also spoke of a ‘foreign mentality’ creeping into the game but also added ‘The English players don’t dive, we’re too honest.’ So there you go. All those years you’ve wondered why we can’t lift that elusive second World Cup, and there it is, succinctly summed up by England’s finest.
In all seriousness, can we really afford to delude ourselves anymore with this pure image of our game? Is it constructive or helpful? Maybe when the game was in its infancy in 19th Century Victorian England, when Lord Kinnaird’s Old Etonians ruled the roost, this English gentleman’s game was more than just the myth it is today. The problem is, it remains a powerful myth, and one that there is little interest in de-bunking.
More recently one need only cast their mind back to Michael Owen ‘going down a bit easily’, as the euphemism goes, in England’s group game with Argentina, or watch more carefully at one or two of the penalties won by the seemingly saintly Gareth Bale. Another facet of the English game we conveniently overlook is its downright violence. In what way can the tackling of the infamous dirty Leeds side be reconciled with the British sense of fair-play? This tradition is not only accepted by fans, but acclaimed and eulogised as being an integral part of our game, as in the case of hard-men like Roy Keane.
Indeed this sense of violence in the English game is often parodied and represented in the fans’ chants. Who can honestly say they have never heard remarks like ‘Break his legs’ or ‘Just deck him’ at English stadiums. The level of violence in the English game is something we often overlook and is something that goes hand-in-hand with the ‘machismo’ that allows homophobia a free rein as the last unchallenged taboo.
Another take on the rise and rise of unsporting behaviour comes from the truly Machievelian Sam Allardyce who advocates going down with minimum contact ‘to help make the referee’s mind up’
All very interesting, but what then, you might ask, can we learn from a fierce rival whose footballers were famously labelled ‘animals’ in 1966 by no less than our only World Cup winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey.
Well, quite a lot actually. Contrary to what Mister Allardyce seems to think, there is something to be said for staying on your feet, not only from a moral standpoint but from a technical point of view. For a fine example of how staying on your feet can benefit the side, look no further than Rosario’s favourite son (no not this one). It’s such a simple thing, but it’s an idea that doesn’t have many followers on a worldwide basis. Maybe if the man Pele foolishly proclaimed to be much better than Messi took this simple point on board, he would become a more exciting talent to watch.
Another area where many of our managers could learn a thing or two is the way that they treat referees. Week after week we hear of how the referee ‘has cost a team points’ or that referees cannot bear in mind last week’s decision by a different referee in a different game elsewhere. Indeed managers have gone as far as to suggest that before a ball has even been kicked they knew the referee would have a negative impact on their team. To question a referee’s integrity in this way surely doesn’t tally with the sportsmanlike image of our game that we so pride ourselves on. The latest attack on referees integrity comes in the form of a harebrained scheme from (you’ve guessed it) Tony Pulis. The idea of demoting/scapegoating referees who make mistakes seems a perfect way to deflect attention from the real matter in hand, but do we really need to ‘relegate’ people for making an honest mistake? Respect for referees is always at a premium. Ideas like that are simply beyond the pale.
At the other end of the scale then, who in the hard-nosed results-driven business of modern football does rise above frustration and petty grievances and show respect for the officials? Step up Argentine maverick Marcelo Bielsa. When questioned after a game about the referee’s performance in which he (Bielsa) was sent to the stand and his team missed three penalties and lost 3-0 to Colombia, Bielsa stunned reporters who were awaiting the standard manager’s tirade with the following answer: “I don’t have the custom of speaking about referees, but on the subject of the ref’s performance today I’d like to say with regard to my sending-off he (the official) was quite correct, because I complained in the wrong way’. When asked whether the referee had cost him a game he replied ‘their mistakes sometimes favour you and sometimes they don’t, but they always act in good faith with the best of intentions’. How refreshing would it be to hear that from a number of our Premier League managers?
Am I suggesting all Argentines are a step ahead of their British counterparts when it comes to sportsmanship? Hardly. Argentine football has more its fair share of ‘professionalism’ and outright cheating. In defence of English football, without too much thought acts of sportsmanship from the likes of Robbie Fowler and Jay Bothroyd spring to mind and as a general rule, as a consequence of our football history the English fan still instinctively demands more from players in terms of Fair Play than in some countries.
However, to take the black-and-white view that trying to con the referee is some kind of imported disease learnt from less morally scrupulous immigrants not only doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny but also has more than a hint of Little Englander about it. It perpetuates a myth that holds England back and leaves us in our de-facto position as wronged martyrs and unlucky losers. The culture of blaming the referee is age-old and is a worldwide phenomenon, of course. It is such an accepted part of English football nowadays, that the journalists’ questions often centre around drawing a controversial remark from managers about the referee or a decision he has made rather than discussing the match.
Surely everyone’s lives would be easier if the simple truths Bielsa and Messi offer were taken on board by some of our players and managers. Our players (like their foreign counterparts) are not saints (barring a notable exception), referees are not and will never be infallible and are not the main cause of a defeat. Until we accept this, it is hard to see our national game moving forward.