Thursday, November 19, 2009

Only a game

'Keep calm and carry on'. That's what it says on my coffee mug. Advice from a more fraught era (although never actually used at the time), but words which we might be advised to dwell on in these days of unceasing thunder.

Football has once again been enveloped by controversy. Thierry Henry is this week's pantomime villain, his sinister act of handling the ball as a prelude to France's equaliser denying the Irish any chance of progressing to the World Cup finals (a job that was far from complete at the time); drawing opprobrium down upon himself from all quarters; reigniting the smouldering debate on the 'use of technology in the game' (as vague and nebulous a concept as there is); and providing the 24-hour news agenda an overspilling trough with which to gorge itself on.

These increasingly regular excuses to get all in a lather - be it due to Sir Alex Ferguson's offensiveness, David Ngog's or Eduardo's acrobatics, or, a bit further back, the injustices visited upon Chelsea in last season's Champions League - now have something of the pagan ritual about them. As Harry Pearson might put it: this looks set to be football's darkest week since the last one.

Of course, football in the 21st century is a high stakes game and the shining sword of truth must necessarily be wielded to lance the boils of corruption, bullying, cheating and diving that disfigure its once-beautiful aspect. Or have we actually got our perspective, and our priorities, quite wrong here?

We live in a world of opinion - so whether you view Henry as scum, Fifa as corrupt, Ireland as robbed, or football as debased, then fair enough. But maybe we should be concentrating our energies, prodigious as they are when it comes to comparatively trivial matters, elsewhere.

Granted, there's plenty to pick through, so let's try and cut to the quick. It seems clear that Henry committed an act of foul play; although I think the handball was instinctive - rather than a conscious attempt to cheat - he deliberately (in the sense that he was aware of the consequences) kept the ball in play. Would the use of replay technology have seen the goal chalked off? Certainly ... but then how would we utilise such methods without initiating a creeping and insidious disruption to the flow of the game?

The crux of the issue is that football does not have discrete passages of action, in the way that cricket, tennis, American football, or even rugby does. Fine, after William Gallas put the ball in the net, play had stopped. But what happens when the ball comes back off the crossbar and bounces on to the line, or is clawed away by the keeper? If it's in, then the break in play is justified. If not, how do you restart the game? A free-kick? A drop-ball? What if the defending team immediately broke and scored on the counterattack? Should the original decision be reviewed then, potentially rewriting the course of the game? Should play be called back, even if said defending team is in full flight, to test the case of whether a goal had been scored - and thereby denying them an attacking opportunity? What about penalty appeals, fouls in open play, off-the-ball incidents? Questions, questions, questions ...

Now that was a long paragraph. The most pertinent question, however, is this one: how long before the game of football becomes both unrecognisable and joyless? It is loved the world over because of its beautiful simplicity. Most of us start out playing with jumpers for goalposts - and even that comes with its controversies (the old dispute of whether the ball was inside or outside when it passed 'through' the post). But would we want it any other way? We don't (or shouldn't) participate for the outcome, but for the 'thing' itself.

This brings us to the morality of the issue. Does a sport have a moral obligation to the rest of us? To the fans, who've been let down? Can football's integrity be irreversibly damaged by the actions of its protagonists?

A proportion of the hue and cry has focused on Henry's failure to incriminate himself in the moments after the goal - to effectively make the case for it to be ruled out. Sure, I'd love to think that in the same situation I would put my hand up, so to speak, and explain my misdemeanour. But would I? In that white-hot instant, would my moral fibre be stiff enough? Would any of ours? It's all very well to huff and puff after the event, to take to the high ground and fulminate about those who have transgressed against us ... but it is an aspect of human nature that we almost invariably take what we're given.

Football had a muddy face long before now, and the rare and cherished exceptions, of Robbie Fowler or Andrey Arshavin for instance, effectively prove the rule. Should Henry be vilified as Maradona was? I can't see the incident ever being remembered in quite the same way. And how does it rank alongside Zidane's headbutt, Schumacher's forearm or, indeed, South Korea's 2002 World Cup campaign? Our heroes may be destined to let us down, but wouldn't we all prefer to be remembered for acts that highlighted the best of us, rather than the worst?

Football is still only a game, despite the distance it has come from its origins as the pastime of the working classes. Money and celebrity have distorted the lens through which we view the sport. Henry's act was no worse than the innumerable instances of petty dishonesty that pock-mark our day-to-day existence. We should of course try to eradicate these, but to do this we must focus on the quotidian, not the extraordinary; act with integrity ourselves, rather than pointing up the flaws in others.

At the same time, the question of setting an example to children is an interesting one. Surely, we all have to learn that, for want of a better expression, it's a hard-knock life? Sometimes bad things happen to good people. What is 'fair'? Moral and ethical values exist on a shifting scale. If we are to deal in absolutes, then every infringement ever committed in football is as bad as the one from last night; and if that were the case, the roars of indignation would be as unending as they are deafening.

No one got hurt, apart from maybe the commercial interests of the Irish team. Let's just simmer down, eh? If we all cared less about winning and more about the craic, then maybe we'd all enjoy ourselves more. And maybe if players didn't feel such pressure to succeed, whatever the means, then they wouldn't resort to sticking their hands where they shouldn't be, throwing themselves to the ground at the slightest touch and generally embarrassing us all. If such hysteria is one of the side effects of us all getting more bang for our buck, then I no longer want to pay the overpriced entry fee, thank you very much ...

Finally, the game should not be replayed. Ireland had a roughly 50-50 chance of progressing through a penalty shoot-out, but it should be remembered that they were not going to the World Cup at the moment Henry intervened. We might not ever consider the luck of the Irish in quite the same way again - but I'd wager they're big enough to take it.

Inevitably, the 'Hand of Henry' will take its place in the chronicles of controversy. But where would we be without our talking points, after all?

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