Books: A Point of View: Spirit of the Game |
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Spirit of the Game : on keeping to the rules

(S06E06, broadcast 27th and 29th November 2009)

"Sport + bad rules = trouble"

I haven’t followed round-ball football seriously since the ‘professional foul’ first got its name back in the 1980s. What was the point of trying to stay interested in a sport where breaking the rules was a recognized tactic? But round-ball football, let’s call it soccer, is so big that it will come and get you even when you try to ignore it. I lost count of the number of news programmes and annual sports round-ups and documentaries about Argentina when I had to watch the ball make contact with Maradona’s hand before it continued its journey, went into the goal, and put England out of the 1986 World Cup. Even today, Maradona will turn up on a cooking programme to show you the hand that handled the ball. He calls it the hand of God.

Well, I suppose he wouldn’t call it the hand that brought a whole sport into disrepute. So Maradona stirs the gazpacho with a wooden spoon held by the hand of God while the producer cues the footage that once again shows the tarnished angel cheating. Any footballer’s hand can get hit by the ball accidentally, of course, but in a real sport, if the result was unfairly advantageous to his side, he would tell the referee. Not in soccer. Because soccer is too important?

No, because soccer is a pain in the neck. Now a whole new cycle of football cheating footage has begun with Thierry Henry’s success in handling the ball in such a manner that Ireland went out while France went up, or went somewhere. I couldn’t care less, except that I know I’m going to have to see that footage again a hundred times, especially when I’m trying not to. I’ll be watching an historical programme about Louis XIV and there it will be.

Everyone in the world saw Thierry Henry handle the ball except the referee. The obvious question is why, if we can see such a thing happening live on television, the referee can’t see it shortly afterwards, even if he couldn’t see it at the time? In American football, America being America, a tribunal the size of the Senate on a busy day examines the replay and sends down its ruling to the referee. Employing this method, the American football world avoids the anomaly by which the soccer world puts the referee in the position of not being able to visit Ireland for the rest of his life.

America, of course, as any soccer fan will tell you, pays the penalty of having a pointy-ball football code ludicrous beyond belief. But I actually prefer watching American football when I can. The level of aggression is nuclear but everyone can see what’s going on. There is a lot of palaver, and an hour of play, what with all the interruptions, lasts longer than Lohengrin, but at least the rules rule. That’s probably the main reason why there is so little violence off the field, among the fans. All the violence is on the field, and none of the fans feels robbed by a bad ruling, because there won’t be one. Hence the fans do not attack each other, or lay waste the surrounding district.

Soccer fans frequently feel robbed and react accordingly, but almost always they are attacking the wrong people. Their real enemies are the people who wrote the rules, long ago. The off-side rule, for example, was written by a Druid that the other Druids couldn’t understand. After the first grand final at Stonehenge stadium, the referee was evenly distributed around the pitch. The philosopher Wittgenstein once said that a game consists of the rules by which it is played. Though rumours persist that he played inside left for Cambridge United under a pseudonym, Wittgenstein in fact knew next to nothing about football; it would have presented him with a game that consists of rules impossible to interpret. But perhaps he knew that and was talking about something else. Lawn bowls. Chinese chequers. Mud wrestling.

Football fans know all about the bad rules but they love the game anyway. It could be that I just don’t love any variety of football enough to put up with the drawbacks. I was the worst scrum half that the Sydney Technical High School third grade rugby union side ever had and you don’t get over that much early evidence that you lack talent. I was similarly untalented in athletics, and later on, though I strove to get interested, I lost interest quickly when drugs turned out to be involved.

They began in the East. It was East Germany that started turning some of its women sprinters into men. They even did it to the swimmers. Not long before the Sydney Olympics I hosted a black-tie fundraiser for the Australian Olympic team and I met some of my Aussie women swimming heroes, who spoiled my night by telling me that they had never got over the revelation that the best years of their lives had been wasted competing against robots built in East German laboratories.

Eventually the drugs spread West and ruined the Olympics completely. When the beautiful American sprinter Marion Jones got busted I strove to tell myself I had no reason to care, because I could never run very fast anyway, so why should it bother me that those who could were faced with the choice of cheating or coming second? But I could never drive a car either and yet I loved Formula One motor racing. I even went on loving it right through the period of Team Orders, when the team decided which of their two drivers was going to finish first, or at any rate ahead of their other driver. I strove to stay fascinated even as it became clearer all the time that technical advances were making the sport boring, because the cars couldn’t get past each other. A whole Grand Prix season would be one procession after another like a funeral on fast-forward, but you would still find me talking learnedly about how it was really all right for Senna to punt Prost off the road because it was within the rules.

With so much money at stake, everybody bent the rules to the limit but at least nobody cheated. A sport for gentlemen, right? When Lewis Hamilton got the world championship it was a bigger thing for me than Barack Obama getting the presidency. Jensen Button was the next champion and I liked that too. But then Nelson Piquet Jr. of the Renault team said that his team leader had instructed him to crash so that the team’s other driver, Fernando Alonso, could win a race. The team leader, Flavio Briatore, was unfairly endowed with wealth, silver hair, Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum, but I had always tried to like him. After that, I liked him less, and I liked the sport less too. Now I can sometimes miss watching a whole race without much caring. I can never do that with the snooker. I watch every frame.

Snooker is still a game that consists of the rules by which it is played. I knew the producer who picked snooker out as the ideal game for television when BBC2 went to air in colour. His name was Phil Lewis and he asked himself the question: ‘What’s the game that needs colour?’ I was clamped to the screen from the first season. I just loved the way the players respected the rules, and they still do. Despite every attempt by the producers to camp up the tournament with interviews, documentaries, chirpy introductions and dire humour, the game is still essentially two young men in black tie who would rather die than cheat. The black tie, since those first days, has been augmented by enough logos on the waistcoat to rival Shinjuku by night, but the attitude is the same. You won’t catch Ronnie O’Sullivan apologizing for being ambidextrous, but he does apologize if he scores a fluke. They all do. And any of them, if he accidentally brushes the wrong ball with his sleeve, will instantly yield the table to his opponent, even if neither his opponent nor the referee saw it happen. They want to win fair and square.

Golfers want that too. Privileged by retirement, I can watch every big match through all four days and I keep watching even if nothing is happening except Tiger Woods looking for a lost ball. He did that several times before missing the cut in the last British Open, the one that Tom Watson almost won even though he is practically my age. What a performance, and especially when he over-hit his approach shot to the last green and must have known straight away that he had blown it. If ever there was a time to break a club over his caddy’s head, that was it. But he just pursed his lips.

I thought tennis might be lost to me in the age of McEnroe, because it was quite clear that the All England Club were incapable of dealing with his tantrums, and could even convince themselves that he was within the spirit of the game. But Borg was there to reassure me that the spirit of the game was still safe. I admired McEnroe’s brilliance both on and off the court but Borg was my guy. Until Sampras was. And now it’s Federer. One well-behaved champion after another. Maybe we’ve just been lucky, and a top-ten tennis player will soon turn up who tries to poison his opponent. And maybe some aspiring snooker champion will invent the radio-controlled cue-ball. But until then, I’ve still got two places to hide from Thierry Henry. Wait a second. I can see a TV screen in the production booth. Aagh.


The following year, Thierry Henry’s unpunished turpitude was richly avenged when France lost in the first round of the World Cup. How we laughed, we who were not French. The England side (how we laughed, we who were not English) was put out of the Cup by Germany, with one of the German goals patently failing to cross the goal line. It was patent to everyone except the referee. Billions of people all over the world saw the ball come bouncing out in action replay, but this unarguable information was not made available to the referee even in written form. Similar lapses in refereeing had done for the chances of Australia, in my view the finest team in the competition. Clearly the day was rapidly approaching when the referee of an important international match would be given the opportunity to see what everyone else saw, but that day had not yet quite arrived. Having already been wondering why I had gone on listening to a hundred thousand vuvuzelas all droning the same note, I resolved to stop watching championship football from then on, and so far I have not felt the loss.

I would hate to stop watching snooker, though. The press, for reasons hard to fathom, would like everyone to stop watching snooker, perhaps because the snooker stars, on the whole, are poised, well behaved and aspirational, with nobody since Alex Higgins even turning up drunk. Snooker scandals, being so few, are highly prized by the tabloids. The supposed scandal of John Higgins, normally a model of comportment, listening to a proposal that he might throw a match was given a lot of coverage. Apart from cubic acres of journalistic hot air, there was not much in it, but Higgins learned the hard way that he shouldn’t even have listened. The following year, it turned out that a large contingent of the Pakistan cricket team were in business with the bookies, and in Formula One the Ferrari team flaunted the most glaring case yet of enforcing team orders on their drivers: it was all on the pit-to-car radio, and broadcast to the world. (‘Sorry, Felipe.’ Sorry about what?) Luckily nobody has yet found a way of corrupting golf. The newspapers, with no angles about golfers cheating at the game to work on, have to confine themselves to the subject of golfers cheating at their private lives. Everyone was agreed that nothing like that would ever happen to Tiger Woods.