x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A handy rule to have in sports

Osman Samiuddin wonders why the grip-n-grin must be trashed just because some players refused to make peace. Have your say in our poll

Anton Ferdinand, right, walked past John Terry without shaking his hand. Glyn Kirk / AFP
Anton Ferdinand, right, walked past John Terry without shaking his hand. Glyn Kirk / AFP

I am not aware of any deaths by handshake in sport or life generally. I won't vouch for the political or business handshake, but it is difficult to think of a serious injury from handshaking.

It is true though that some handshakes – like that of Shahid Afridi for instance – come with warnings (from Ian Chappell, who says don't shake Afridi's hand if you prefer your own hand unbroken). A free tip: the one to really avoid is that of Afridi's elder brother Tariq.

It is important to register this, that shaking hands is essentially a peacenik gesture, because you would be forgiven for thinking after this weekend that it was a tool of intrinsic dastardliness. Or if not that, then at least some grave effeminate affront to an undrawn and vague, but sadly prevalent notion of rugged masculinity.

Anton Ferdinand refused to shake the hand of John Terry this weekend in the English Premier League clash between Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea, an continuing fallout from their meeting last season, after which Ferdinand accused Terry of racially abusing him (charges of which Terry was acquitted this summer in a court of law but still faces an English Football Association charge).

That brought the burgeoning file of Handshake-gate to five incidents (to quickly recap: Terry and Wayne Bridge, Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez and the scrapped handshakes from two meetings between QPR and Chelsea last season). Imagine: five!

On the basis that this pre-match ritual was introduced ahead of the 2008/09 season, and that one top-flight season has 380 games, that is five occasions out of, at a rough guess, 1,500 matches (but probably much more even after adding on cup games) at the highest level. Five times. Clearly it is such a persistent blight it must be scrapped.

It is not surprising that a particular kind of man has been loudest in calling for the banishment.

Alan Shearer, Mark Hughes, Robbie Savage, Ray Wilkins, and of course Andy Gray (without whom no such list would ever be complete); all men's men, footballers' footballers, hard-knocked, gritty and gruff, for whom the world never really stepped out of a Clint Eastwood Western. Their argument is that respect of the kind a handshake proffers needs to be earned, not presumed. Shake hands at the end of a game, post-battle they say, to acknowledge that a fair battle has been had.

But is this not very obviously thick-headed and Neanderthal? What is so ridiculous - to use Hughes's term - about shaking hands to start a match in the hope that it is played in fair spirit? And then shake it again at the end to confirm that it was. Are we that curmudgeonly when it comes to shaking hands?

And ignore the other, even weaker objection, framed as a fed-up response to the rampant commercialisation of the game, that the handshake ritual allows broadcasters an extra advertisement break. Are we really going to peg the (very important, by the way) dialogue about the effects of big, complicated money on this little, uncomplicated game on one extra ad break? Really?

One of the things about handshakes in sport is that they are a symbolic acknowledgement that this is not war, which sounds like an obvious statement but needs repeating: there are plenty of people, players and fans, who still imagine sport as surrogate war.

Of course they can be complex gestures, holding complex significances. Over in the US this weekend, handshaking was also on the agenda in the NFL. Last year the San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh shook the hands of his Detroit Lions counterpart Jim Schwartz (and backslapped him) a little too exuberantly it seems, leading to a very public altercation. This Saturday they shook hands before and after the game, hatchets buried.

You could interpret some handshakes outside of sport in all kinds of different ways; Donald Rumsfeld shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein, or Jack Straw doing likewise with Robert Mugabe are but two examples. And the Ferdinand-Terry, as the Bridge-Terry and Suarez-Evra are deeply complicated matters too. But that does not mean you get rid of handshaking, because the intent and spirit behind them remains simple.

Let them be resolved through personal choice. If Ferdinand chose not to shake hands, or Suarez did, then where is the problem? And why does it mean the whole ritual should be scrapped?

It's a little mark of protest by one individual against another individual. It isn't a protest against the ritual itself.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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