x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A question of character as footballers act out new lows

For just a minute, top footballers as a class seemed almost noble in their sympathy for stricken colleagues. But the illusion was quickly destroyed.

Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly's assertion - "Some people think football is a matter of life and death, but it's much more important than that" - may be the most overused quote in sport, but his words have been given new resonance in the last few weeks in the English Premier League.

One would have thought professional footballers would have endorsed Shankly's dictum. Yet to judge by recent behaviour, you could almost believe that they had acquired a sense of proportion about what really matters in life.

The reasons for the collective about-face were two distressing and widely reported incidents that happened in quick succession. The first was at White Hart Lane, where Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest midway through a game against Tottenham Hotspur. Then a week ago, it was revealed that the Aston Villa captain, Stilian Petrov, was ending his career after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia.

His appearance in the stands at Villa Park that weekend to support his teammates in their match against Chelsea was both touching and gracious, as well as offering a glimpse of the stoicism and courage that he will need in ample quantities over the coming months.

Both occurrences unleashed a torrent of sentiment and support, not only at Bolton and Villa but at other clubs as well. Over the next few days hardly a game took place in the Premier League without players showing some sign of support for their stricken colleagues, usually in the form of specially printed T-shirts or rounds of applause before kick-off.

It was heartening to see footballers eschewing tribal differences in favour of solidarity. Maybe the perception of the beautiful game staffed by hedonistic, self-obsessed superbrats was not true after all.

Yet any sense of that nobility was quickly forgotten. On the evidence of recent fixtures, it seems the primary qualification to be a top-flight player is not an apprenticeship at a footballing academy so much as three years training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Take the match between Liverpool and Newcastle, for instance (although any of the other Premier league matches would suffice).

First, we had Liverpool's Andy Carroll (a former Newcastle favourite), diving in the penalty box in an embarrassing attempt to traduce a much-needed penalty kick. Whether the great Shankly would have approved of such skulduggery in a Liverpool shirt is difficult to know.

The referee spotted Carroll's ploy, and the only reward he received for his histrionics was a yellow card. But it didn't stop there. It rarely does. Throughout the remainder of the match the poor referee was bombarded with appeals for free kicks, corners and fouls, nearly all of them entirely questionable.

All this play-acting culminated in the Newcastle player James Perch goading Liverpool goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, into a timid face-off. Perhaps their foreheads did briefly touch - perhaps not - but even if there were a momentary clash, the replay showed that it would not have disturbed hair on either head.

Yet Perch collapsed, clutching his face as if hit in the forehead by a shovel, writhing in synthetic agony: a display as shameful as it was bogus. The result was the referee's dismissal of Reina.

As a lover of the beautiful game, I found it hard to ignore the disjuncture between the lachrymose displays for suffering colleagues, and the subterfuge during actual play.

When someone tells me that "gamesmanship" (or cheating, as I call it) is all part of modern sport, I'm reminded of the great American golfer Bobby Jones. During the 1925 US Open, he admitted to an official that he'd inadvertently touched the ball with his club while preparing to play. Nobody had spotted it, yet his confession resulted in a shot added to his card, and he lost the tournament by the slenderest of margins.

When congratulated for his honesty afterwards, his reaction was as admirable as it was brief. "You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank," he replied.

Jones's approach to his profession is something modern footballers would do well to consider. If they could apply the same rigorous standards to their personal conduct on the pitch, they really would be offering a fitting tribute to teammates who are fighting for their lives.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London