A cancerous culture exists within football that must be addressed if the beautiful game is to live up to its responsibility as the world’s most loved sport. It is time for the games top brass to take decisive action before the cancer spreads further. As a passionate supporter of football I believe now is the time to act. I propose a 5 point treatment plan to eliminate the disease and deliver a step change performance improvement in the culture of the game and how it is played.
The events in Paris last Wednesday during the World Cup play-off between France and Ireland have placed the culture of the game firmly under the microscope again. Thierry Henry’s hand (literally) in the wining goal that saw France qualify for South Africa is the latest physical manifestation of the disease that eats away at the game. What has this latest sorry episode shown us?
Firstly, that cheating is accepted practice within the game. It was interesting to observe closely the comments of the Irish players after the game. To a man they absolved Thierry Henry of blame and rather vented their ire at the match officials for missing the blatant act of cheating. In the same situation they conceded they probably would have done the same thing. This tells you a lot about the maladies in the game. If I can get away with it is fair game (excuse the pun!). Diving, play acting, feigning injury, attempting to get other players booked or sent off, disputing decision are accepted norms in football.
What have Diego Maradona, Fabio Grosso, Rivaldo and Slaven Bilic all got in common? Three things:
There is an endless list of examples that can be placed beside Thierry Henry’s misdemeanour. Diego Maradona’s Hand of God, Fabio Grosso’s dive in the 2006 World Cup against Australia, Rivaldo’s shameless play acting to get Hakan Unsal a red card in the 2002 World Cup or what about Slaven Bilic in the 1998 semi final conning the referee into a red card for Laurent Blanc which saw the Frenchman miss the final. We are spoilt for choice.
Secondly, the authorities have allowed this culture to flourish by not acting with any urgency either to prevent such events from happening in the first place or taking punitive action when they do occur. None of the high profile players above were sanctioned in any way for their outrageous acts of cheating.
Thirdly, that all of the responsibility for catching the cheats rests with the match officials who are given no practical support from the authorities. And when it all goes wrong, as it did last Wednesday, they are hung out to dry to carry the can. It wasn’t Henry who shouldered the blame it was Martin Hansson and his assistant referee.
The side effects
Football is a powerful influence in modern society. The omnipresence of the most popular team sport on the planet has created a social responsibility that the game’s authorities are only too aware of. To their credit the FIFA corporate social responsibility programme is doing great work around the world. Their mission to “develop the game, touch the world, build a better future” is backed up by initiatives such as the ‘1 Goal: Education for all’ project. But this great work is undermined by what happens on the pitch.
Kids all over the world imitate their idols. When they see the best footballers in the world demonstrating the lowest standards of behaviour what do we expect to happen? Two simple examples illustrate this clearly.
A close friend of mine is a teacher at a leading public school in England. The school plays rugby union in their first term, football in the next and cricket at the end of the school year. He watches his pupils play rugby union and they accept all the referee decisions without question or dispute. The same group of players, with the same master in charge, behave differently when on a soccer field. They dispute every decision of the referee, shout abuse at the official and act in a way that is out of character for them normally. Why? Because that is what footballers do.
My seven year old son is fanatical about sport. Football is his first love and if he isn’t playing on the street or with his local team he is watching endless re-runs of games on television. I have noticed that whenever he plays football, whether with his friends in the street or in a game, he spits on the ground all the time. He doesn’t do this any other time other than when playing football even when he plays other sports. Why? Because that is what footballers do.
These examples may seem trivial but actually they show just how critical it is that we attack the malignancy within the game before it spreads further. We are raising generations of kids to be conditioned into reinforcing this cancerous culture.
So what is the treatment plan?
Platitudes and well meaning statements will not cure the patient. Cancer requires aggressive and direct treatment. And it must be caught at source before it attacks the healthy cells within the body. The same must be done within football. The remedies must be swift, direct, practical and fundamentally tackle the on field behaviour that is part of the root cause.
Here are five initiatives that will dramatically improve the underlying culture within the game:
1. Get the critical decisions right
2. Let everyone hear what is going on
3. Cut out the cynical fouls and acts
4. Follow up rigourously after the event
5. Make the players responsible for their actions
The recovery process
All of the above are aimed at taking action to change what happens on the field and create a step change improvement in the playing culture so football and its players can proudly stand up as genuine role models. I have not tackled the off field culture that is also undermining the game. That is a discussion for another day.
The football authorities in the UK have a major influence on setting this new agenda. Due to the historical role as founders of the game, the FAs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make up four of the eight votes on the body (IFAB) that acts as the custodian of the Laws of the Game. Now is the time for them to use this influence to prescribe the remedies that will cure the cancer.
Fair play is at the very core of football. That is why FIFA place so much emphasis on it. But that core is rotten and riddled with cancer based on what we see on the football field. The game’s leaders must have the courage to treat this with radical surgery as prescribed above and rid the game of this disease once and for all. And if FIFA do this then I will say “fair play”.
Brian MacNeice is Performance Consultant and Founding Director at Kotinos Partners, based in Dublin.
Copyright Kotinos Partners