Thursday, November 19, 2009

Soccer is a Cheaters' Game, and Has Been for Generations

All this guff about replays from the FAI and An Taoiseach over Thierry Henry’s handball last night is just so much old blather. Soccer is a cheaters’ game, and has been for generations. The Theft of St Denis was not a once-off event – it happens week-in, week-out in professional soccer, and is now an accepted part of the game.

As evidenced by the Irish players’ refusal to a man to condemn Henry himself. They will talk about Sepp Blatter and Platini and FIFA and the ref ‘til the cows come home, but as far as they are concerned, calling Thierry Henry a cheat or a thief is out of order. As far as they are concerned, he is a good pro doing what he must do to win. That’s why Barcelona pay him the big bucks. The Corinthian spirit has no key on the cash register.

It wasn’t always like this. The BBC did a documentary on Sir Stanley Matthews once, possibly around the time of his death in 2000, where he said that when he played in the forties and fifties, if a team won a corner, this was considered a mark against the winger for not doing his job and getting a cross in. These were the days of five man full forward lines in a pyramid, 2-3-5, formation, remember. A totally different existence.

Watching the footage of George Best that saturated all media when Best died it was remarkable how he always stayed on his feet, even after he had a lump kicked out of him. He never went down. Soccer had not evolved to that level. The idea hadn’t been introduced.

But it’s certainly been introduced, processed and assimilated now. Soccer has reached that part of its evolution, where winning takes piority over how the game is played, and the powers that be seem quite happy with that.

Diving is an integral part of the game now. Think of the great players in the Premiership in recent years: Drogba, Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard – diving is an integral part of their game. Pretending to be hurt. Bending the rules. Cheating.

Sneaky, cowardly fouls, like Thierry Henry’s handball last night. There’s a certain honesty in a punch. Not least the not inconsiderable risk that the fellow you punch may punch you back. But diving – it’s just pathetic.

And it’s not like they do it now and again. It’s not like Didier Drogba, say, took a tumble in the box once when Chelsea were 1-0 down with ten minutes to go. Didier Drogba hits the turf more often than the tongs by the fire.

Look at him. He’s six foot two inches tall, over thirteen stones of bone and muscle. He’s an outstanding physical specimen of a man, and a footballer with all the gifts. There is nothing in football Didier Drogba cannot do, and with his physical bulk, he is not a man who is knocked over easily. And yet he is knocked over easily. In what seems like every damned game. During the last World Cup, a man texted Des Cahill on the radio and said that when he bumped into the telly on the way back from the kitchen during one of the Ivory Coast’s games, Drogba went over from the impact.

Cheating is part of the game. It is a part of a professional soccer player’s armoury. You read about players who “can win free kicks.” These are the divers, and they are a recognised, if unspoken, part of the fabric of modern, professional soccer.

Is Thierry Henry a lesser man among his own because of last night in Paris? He is not. And it’s ridiculous to pretend that he is. This is the twenty-first century. Women and children first went down with the Titanic – this is the age of every-man-for-himself.

As a society we don’t aspire to anything other than personal gain – why should soccer players buck the trend of society as a whole? Name one player who has suffered for diving. Cristiano Ronaldo dived all the time for Manchester United – Real Madrid stumped up eighty millions pounds for him. You do the math, baby.

FIFA identifies seventeen rules in the game of association football. If An Spailpín were running soccer, he’d introduce an eighteenth, to do with bringing the game into disrepute. This would have two facets. 1. Anybody diving or acting like a coward or a cheat concedes an automatic penalty irrespective of where the foul occurred. 2. Incidents that brought the game into disrepute can be cited as in rugby, with the player in question suffering lengthy punishments.

Neither of these things will happen, of course. Ireland will take their beating, and we’ll feel sorry for ourselves, something we’re good at, and boo Thierry Henry any time Barcelona are on in the Champions League in the pub or during the World Cup. And in the meantime, professional soccer will rake in the money because people watch the Champions League in their millions, and Premiership in their millions, and the World Cup in their millions.

And when players trail a leg and tumble over and pretend that they’re hurt, all the kids watching the game will see all that adult talk about the right way to play as so much old blather like the tooth fairy and the bogey man. They’ll know that to get on in this world, to get the lifestyle of Ronaldo with the cars and the girls and the money, you cheat and con and trick and pretend. Because that’s what we value now.

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