The Gentleman’s Game

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A friend’s wife said something about football the other day during the Liverpool-United clash, and it made me take a pensive look at the game I have devoted much time and energy to. Perhaps too much time and energy.

“It’s a ‘dirty’ game,” she muttered, afraid her comments would rile up the already rowdy crowd, incensed by the decisions of Andre Marriner, the match referee. Mr. Marriner was wrong, as referees often are in matches such as this. Depending on which side of the fence you stood, it was either for having been taken in by the manner of Charlie Adam’s tumble from a Rio Ferdinand-tackle, leading to Pool’s first goal (from a Stevie G freekick), or for not having dismissed Rio Ferdinand on a 2nd bookable offence for said tackle.

I thought of telling her I distinctly remember her husband being the captain of our school’s football team, but decided against it. After all, she was partly right. My school’s football team was made up of a ragtag bunch of ‘dirty’ hooligans who were only saved from expulsion because of the things they could do with a football. The last I heard, the lot of them are either imprisoned, dead or working for a bank somewhere. George Orwell once said,

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

Something strange happens whenever a group of fans watches a match. I don’t drink but I reckon it’s the closest equivalent to a night out with alcohol. Inhibitions get thrown out the window. Passions get inflamed. Tongues let loose. The evening usually segues into one of these two events: a) poor sods exchanging high-fives and backslaps, convinced they’re the best of friends, ready and willing to lay down their lives for one another; b) poor sods exchanging kicks and punches, convinced they’re the worse of enemies, ready and willing to take the lives of one another.

There’s nothing in this country that will unite or divide people quicker than English football. Nothing like a highly-charged ninety minutes to turn even the most rational, bipartisan observer into a passionate, drivel-spewing zealot.

Perhaps, in that sense, the game is ‘dirty’. There are no places for gentlemen in football. A supporter of Liverpool is firmly expected to loathe Manchester United, and vice versa. This bias influences reactions to refereeing decisions as well. Liverpool fans were screaming bloody murder when Marriner failed to award a penalty when Johnny Evans handled from a Dirk Kuty header, but were conspicuously silent when Jose Enrique seemed to have used his upper arm to control the ball near his goal.

It’s probably stretching it a little bit, but I’m tempted to believe the obsession we’ve had with “serious sport”, televised to us for the last 50 years has blunted our ability to understand and appreciate the nuances of each side’s argument. This inevtiably leads to polarisation, with any semblance of compromise seen as a moral weakness. We see it in American politics, where beauracratic wrangling amongst Republicans and Democrats has kept the US financial landscape seemingly headed for another meltdown. We see it here at home, in petty cyberspace arguments over governmental policies.

But back to football. It’s this inability to understand the nuances in a particular refereeing decision, or behind a team’s victory or defeat that produces resentment in the watching fan, and manager. Both Dalglish and Ferguson have rallied against the perceived sense of unfairness at the hand of match officials, though, and they know this, the number of decisions for and against them usually evens out in the run of a season.

Managers sure are a funny bunch. When a controversial decision goes against their team, it’s as if all the referees in the world are in a clandestine operation against them. Hear them make a case for the use of television replays, or goal-line technology. Watch them when a controversial decision does go their way however. “I’m sure the referee had a good look from where he stood. I was standing in the dugout area, so I don’t really know.”

I know, it’s extremely idealistic and naive to think that professional managers would actually hold their hands up and admit the mistakes of their players or be more forgiving when referees do cost them points, but it would certainly be a refreshing change from the status quo. In a world where lines are often too quickly drawn in the sand, we sometimes hope that football can be the last vestige of our gentlemanly ways.

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