It was Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly who brought the phrase “It’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that” to soccer (although he stole the line from an American college football coach). And this week we’ve seen the world of Premier League more than live up to this mantra, in all the wrong ways.
As The Times (of London) columnist Matthew Syed brilliantly identified this week, the magistrate setting John Terry’s racism court case date seemed to ascribe to the belief that soccer trumps all. The magistrate in question moved back Terry’s court case to after the Euro tournament in part due to pressure from Chelsea which suggested that the court case would mess with their players’ schedules, disadvantaging the club. The game trumps the law of the land by all accounts.
Today things only got worse when Suarez refused to shake Patrice Evra’s hand. I’m neither Man Utd, nor Liverpool fan, but as a lover of the game I hold both fine and successful clubs in high regard. I won’t hesitate to agree with Sir Alex Ferguson that Luis Suarez is a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club and its virtually unmatched history. Yes, he’s a fabulous player but clearly not a particularly honorable or mature individual. The defence of his racism charge was pathetic but the petulance he showed today was utterly disgusting. Still Liverpool and many of the fans stick behind him, much to the discredit of the club – a clear demonstration that their tribal football loyalty trumps their own moral compass and sense of fair play.
Football is not more important than life and death, but a hugely important aspect in the foundations of the game was that it was enstilled with the basic principles of civilized society. It was to be a gentllemanly pursuit. How can it be while we harbor people who will gladly belittle opponents due to the color of their skin? Ian Darke, ESPN’s commentator today, offered the opinion that the pre-match handshakes are meaninglesss and should be abolished. Why? Because we have had one cancelled because of a racial abuse scandal (QPR vs Chelsea) and one that went awry because a player banned for racial abuse refused to shake the hand of the victim of that abuse. But it is not a trivial thing, it is designed to reinject the sense of honor and gentlemanly conduct into the game. The handshakes should stay, it’s Suarez and Terry who should go.
On a less serious, but related note, Darke also said when one Liverpool player aggressively rifled the ball at an opponent to return it to him for a throw in. “Well, he’s entitled to throw it back how he wants” said Darke. No he’s not, it’s clearly ungentlemanly conduct. He should be booked… there’s a reason you can be booked for ungentlemanly conduct – we want the game to remain civvilized. You can also be booked for dissent, as Torres should have been at half time in the game at Goodison. Referees need to feel empowered (as they technically are) to sanction anyone who acts like a petulant child or a beligerant drunk.
For God’s sake, can we stop saying soccer is a form of escapism where people can step beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior? That’s not how it started out. Gentlemanly conduct was at the heart of the game when Lord Kinnaird and his chums started kicking about. Marina Hyde (The Guardian) brilliantly satirized the notion of escapism by asking if the flat-cap wearing thousands attending games before WW2 were singing songs about such and such player or manager being a paedophile.
Everyone who plays has said and done things on a pitch they regret, but let’s not brush it under the carpet or blindly support our team’s players and deny it when they have clearly acted reprehensibly. Let’s not make football more important than life, let’s instead apply the social
On a positive note though, while one club on Merseyside not only disgraced themselves (and played dreadfully – I’ve never seen such little pressure on the ball was when United were in possession today… and Glen Johnson had a horror show for both goals), the other club was an advert for football. Everton were magnificent against Chelsea today from front to back.