I’ve been listening – as usual – to my football podcast this morning as I walked across Brooklyn Bridge to work. The business of the day was an in-depth debate about the blatant handball (or was it a ‘juggle’) that effectively led to the Republic of Ireland being knocked out of the World Cup and guaranteed France their place. What I didn’t expect was to see the issue discussed on Huffington Post once I arrived at the office:
A large part of what I have heard and read centers on whether or not Thierry Henry – a gifted player with a similar talent for keeping his PR stock high – should have done the sportsmanlike thing: should he have owned up? After all, he must have known that the whole sports world would soon be analyzing that particular bit of video. Moreover, he must have suspected that most people who saw it the first time round didn’t need to analyze the video. It was so obvious. Except to the referee.
The problem with this is that it assumes that football is a sport and played for the enjoyment of taking part; when, in fact, it crossed over from sport to business somewhere between twenty and thirty years ago. Henry has since admitted that he handled the ball – he could hardly deny it - but that France are already through and winning is the most important thing. If you can win in an entertaining fashion that is certainly a bonus – after all, football is in the entertainment business. (Or is it in the Sports Merchandising business?). Players are under more televised scrutiny than ever but are still diving, spitting, stamping and tugging shirts. Few players are given time to develop – particularly at the bigger clubs – and need to make an immediate impact – fairly or otherwise. If they don’t they are out. To be replaced by another big signing. And if you don’t have the money to buy these players then you make it known that you may be interested in hearing from any wealthy Arab businessmen and/or royalty who may want a new plaything. The common wisdom used to claim that you couldn’t buy the Premiership. Blackburn tested the theory (with Jack Walker’s cash) and Chelsea have smashed it into tiny pieces (having looked farther afield to Russia). Manchester City are now the richest club in the world, owned as they are by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan whose family fortune is estimated at around $1 trillion. Having already invested around $500 million you would suspect that he will want a return on that investment. The minimum required will be a Champions League place and that requires them to finish in the top four. They will not achieve that by just playing fair and entertaining football.
It would be nice to think that on the International level there may exist some of the finer points of the game where Nation meets Nation to pit their wits against each other and transcend the commercial imperatives. But the players of any top footballing nation are mostly those who are battling it out in a kind of Super League of six to eight teams in the EPL, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliege. The National Manager is not necessarily of that country’s descent. Even stranger is the fact that very often the players themselves only have a tenuous link with the team whose shirt they are wearing. I think you could possibly qualify for selection if a distant relation took a vacation in a particular country for longer than two weeks. I suspect that top players are paid so much by their clubs and are asked to play so many games that the thought of playing for their country loses some of its appeal. You only have to look at how many players announce their international retirement these days – almost unheard of ten years ago.
And, of course, there is always the commercial consideration even with international games. The winning country will sell more shirts and other merchandise and will see an increase in attendances, etc.
We may want to see the spirit of fair play and a well-contested game – particularly as an antidote to all of the other things that are going on in the world. I suspect that more often we want to come out on the winning side and there’s nothing wrong with that. But without some sense of fair play what does that leave us with?