So, Ashley Young took a tumble for Manchester United against Aston Villa yesterday afternoon and now the whole man and his or her dog is up in arms about it. It was the second week in a row that Young had been up to such antics, with a swan dive against Queens Park Rangers last weekend earning Queens Park Rangers’ Shaun Derry a red card and, just as yesterday, setting the Premier League’s champions-elect for another comfortable home win.
While several trees have already been felled for the discussion over the minutae of Young’s melodramatics, though – was it a penalty or not, do these things really “even themselves out over the course of a season” or not, and so on – few seem to be asking the altogether more realistic question of whether it is possible to expect modern footballers to play the game with any moral compass whatsoever.
The truth of the matter is that the dice have been loaded since the game first turned professional in the latter years of the nineteenth cetury. The corinthian values of the public school-educated guardians of football’s first guardians fell by the wayside many years ago and cheating – or seeking to cheat – on the pitch is a phenomenon that is as old as the game itself. What has changed is that when referees make mistakes, those mistakes are now analysed by television cameras at thirty different angles and a public that seems happy to accept refereeing oversights when they go in favour of their team, but not when they go in favour of other peoples. As the tendency of players has come to work to the principle that winning is all that matters, so those charged with the job of trying to ensure that the laws of the game keep up with developments in gamesmanship have fallen and further behind, hamstrung by an inability to face up to the fact that, whether we like it or not, football is and probably always has been about winning to the detriment of all other considerations.
Of course, it is somewhat galling to see any player cheat, particularly when that player is playing for a club that already has every single advantage that could ever be handed to it on a plate. Ultimately, though, it shouldn’t matter which club a player is representing when this sort of thing happens and one of the more heartening aspects of the latest fall-out from this particular debate has been the volume of Manchester United supporters that have been prepared to stick their heads above the metaphorical parapets and say that they would considerably happier if Young would leave out the histrionics, although it could be argued that this is considerably easier to do when your team has romped home to a four goal win off the back of a poor performance against Wigan Athletic last week and at such a nervy time of the season. Still, though, it’s a start.
The broader cultural roots of cheating within the game, however, have yet to be tackled with anything like genuine conviction. The FA’s Respect campaign and FIFA’s Fair Play league are, on the whole, either ignored or treated with contempt by both supporters and the media, whilst the debate over the use of video technology is clouded by the limitations of such technology and the – often unspoken – assumption that even if such technology were to be introduced, it wouldn’t be long before a high-profile case would show up its deficiences, and after millions of pounds had been spent installing it. Until there is a fundamental shift in the attitudes of everybody associated with football – the players, coaching staff, club owners, the media and supporters themselves, it seems unlikely that very much will change in this respect. Howls of outrage, whether from within the professional structure of the game or from those that pay to keep it going, will continue to have an air of disingenuity about them until this fundamental perception takes place, and there is little hunger for that to happen.
In most respects, the current status quo suits everybody. Players that cheat – and the managers that support them through selectively failing to see incidents which involve their players – know fully well that they will escape punishment for their actions, the media gets to orchestrate a “debate” on the subject, secure in the knowledge that, like buses, another controversy will be along in a minute, and supporters get to reap the rewards of bad decisions when they go in their favour whilst lamenting the poor standard of officiating in modern football when they don’t. Referees, meanwhile, remain extraordinarily silent for a group of people in such a high profile position within the game. Occasionally, a player might get demonised in the press for a little while, but this usually passes on to a new target after a few days, and the potential rewards for attempting to hoodwink officials are now greater than ever, and continuing to rise.
There can be little doubting that football has a moral code of sorts. It’s just that there are so many holes in it that it sometimes feels as if it might as well not exist. We have argued in jest before that the only way to resolve this definitively might be to get rid of match officials altogether and to revert football back to the rules of the playground, in which the biggest boys get the game played to the rules that suit them with no outside interference. It seems unlikely that the ‘winning is everything’ culture of professional football is going to change at any time in the foreseeable future. For all the opprobrium that has rained down upon him over the last week or so, Ashley Young is not only the tip of the iceberg, but also a symptom rather than the cause of an ailment that very few people seem to want to genuinely address. Unless there is a seismic shift in the mind-set of almost everybody connected with the professional game, it seems likely that complaining about bad officiating and simulation from players will remain little more than dust in the wind.
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