Every so often, the broadsheet press in this country take a trip to morality’s summit, in order to urinate on football from the greatest possible height. Not “real” football, you understand, as played with unstinting honour since William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball and ran with it (i.e. ‘cheated’) at Rugby School in 18…blah…blah…blah. But its bastard cousin, football under association rules, which used to be played with unstinting honour by public schoolboys and muscular Christians until they let the working class johnnies come in and spoil it for everyone.
Football took a moral beating during the Olympic Games, when the medal heroes and gallant failures among Team GB were held up as bastions of moral virtue compared to Premier League footballers in general and Daniel Sturridge in particular. This sweeping generalisation was not entirely unfair. But it was mostly unfair. For a kick-off, the Olympic football tournaments were chock-full of the ‘Olympic Spirit’ which oozed from the pores of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins (though more of him in a bit) et al. I highlighted the Honduran mens team as an example of modern football cynicism breaking through the Olympic barrier, only to be corrected by a reader who highlighted their generosity towards a spectator hit by an errant ball from a Honduran boot.
The Independent newspaper’s Sam Wallace was a rare voice of mitigation, noting that it was the sporting equivalent of comparing apples with oranges to expect rowers and footballers to behave identically in pursuit of their dreams. As the article’s headline correctly noted, “footballers and rowers come from different worlds, so don’t compare them.” And since I began typing this article, I was struck by the picture of cyclist Bradley Wiggins “gesturing” as he left hospital, having been knocked off his bike earlier this week, a darkly comic episode now that his injuries have been revealed as relatively minor. Wiggins was giving it the “middle-finger,” the American version of the good old British “V-sign.” Was this post-modern irony? Wiggins’ way of showing that one of his reported injuries was nothing of the sort (like the broken ribs I kept reading about on Thursday)? Was it some sort of cycling in-joke that I’d missed?
It seems not, unless the BBC’s Ian Dennis missed it too. As he tweeted on Friday morning: “Can you imagine the outcry if a Rooney or a Cole had made the same offensive gesture as Bradley Wiggins?” Olympians, it seems, (especially gold medallists) can do no wrong, even when they are doing wrong. But the comparisons between the football codes are more than this passing fad. I wrote some years ago, for another website, on the outcry following a League Cup final brawl between Arsenal and Chelsea, which drew numerous versions of “rugby players wouldn’t stoop so low.” Donkey droppings at the best of times, these comments were plain wrong on the SAME weekend as an Italian rugby player stamped on a Scottish opponent’s HEAD and the only media indignation centred on the fact that the incident cost Italy a simple kick at goal.
But versions still emerge most recently when the Independent on Sunday’s Chris McGrath wrote a piece which inspired its headline-writer to invite us to “Imagine if footballers had to play by rugby’s rules for just one weekend…” McGrath had the decency at least to avoid the argument that rugby players and footballers were simply good and evil respectively. “The privacy of the scrum,” he admitted, “accommodates too many primordial transgressions for anyone to pretend that rugby players uniformly conduct themselves like ‘gentlemen.’” “Why don’t he just say they like ‘ittin people?”, one character in 1990s film The Firm shouted, disapprovingly, at a professorial type intellectualising about football hooliganism. Because that was what McGrath meant. And the same tone of question could have been asked of him as he ‘informed’ us that “It remains hard to believe that even footballers could be so obtuse as not to recognise a Darwinian imperative, once presented with sufficiently meaningful strictures?” Isn’t it, though?
This was also where the voice of reason took a breather from his argument, probably as cross-eyed as the rest of us by McGrath’s turns of phrase. His “meaningful strictures” involved football taking on some of rugby’s rules and sanctions. His “Darwinian imperative” was that footballers “would have to adapt to survive” if, to quote his prime example, “the ball was advanced ten yards for dissent,” as it is in the sport of primordial transgressors. If McGrath had applied a second thought to this notion, he didn’t let it show. In rugby no player can either pass the ball forward or be an active participant in front of the ball. The highest rewarded score can happen at the furthest point forward on the pitch but at any point across it.
So, advancing possession ten yards further “up” the pitch is an advantage. It makes a difference. Conceding that ten yards punishes the conceding team. And it can create a scoring opportunity where one did not previously exist. In football, a player can actively participate anywhere on the pitch, as long as there are two or more members of the opposition closer to the furthest point forward on the pitch. The ball can be passed from anywhere to anywhere – from one end of the pitch to the other with the proper footwear and a following wind. But scoring opportunities are limited to a few yards across the pitch. So, advancing possession ten yards is not, in itself, an advantage. It does not necessarily make a difference. It does not, in itself, act as any sort of punishment at all; quite the reverse in certain scenarios. Apart from such technicalities, the idea is a winner.
McGrath makes the briefest of mentions of football abandoning “an experiment along similar lines, a few years ago… for various reasons, none suspicious.” One major and very non-suspicious reason was that no evidence was gathered to demonstrate that it…WORKED, despite the rule applying between 2000 and 2005. The rule, it was reported in press briefings accompanying its scrapping, “was not as widely used as originally intended,” although “referees believed it to be a useful aid in their attempt to keep order.” But if the latter was true, why was the former true too?” There were claims that “non-rugby playing nations” did not “understand the logic behind the rule.” The then head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, Keith Hackett, reportedly said: “Countries who do not have any familiarity with the concept couldn’t get their heads around the process.”
Dumb footballers, in other words? Dumb foreigners, in other words? After all, the concept of moving play ten yards towards a set of posts was hardly as complex as, say, Darwinian imperatives and primordial transgressions. No. It wasn’t that people didn’t “understand the logic.” It’s just that in football, unlike rugby, there was none. McGrath also attempted to make “a connection between being rubbish at discipline and rubbish at football.” He would have had more success in making this relatively logical connection if he hadn’t let his article drift into a, dare I say it, ill-disciplined rant at Queens Park Rangers and their manager (at the time of typing) Mark Hughes. And whatever argument is being advanced by citing QPR’s eight red cards (“several in memorably idiotic circumstances”) since Hughes became their manager in January, it isn’t an argument for moving a football ten yards nearer goal in the event of dissent.
Ultimately, the arguments over whether rugby or football players are the “better behaved” are eternal ones, with no conclusive answers. On a weekend when Remembrance Day silences were immaculately observed even at football grounds notoriously bad at doing so (Celtic Park, I’m looking at you), an international rugby player was “cited” for stamping on an opponent. That doesn’t give football any place on the moral high ground, even temporarily. But it certainly doesn’t make the “ten-yard rule” the cure of all football’s behavioural ills. And it certainly shouldn’t give rugby and its followers the right to more and more column inches, telling us football fans about how superior they believe their game are.
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