The dishonest game

We are now at the exciting time of year that falls between Easter and Pentecost – otherwise known as the climax of the football season.

Interestingly it has elements of resurrection, as apparently doomed clubs spring to life; and speaking in tongues, which is what goes on across the terraces, on the pitch and in the commentary boxes. It also has promotion to a higher form of existence and relegation to the depths of non-league purgatory.

But here the similarity with any kind of Christianity ends, because football is basically a dishonest game.

Beautiful, yes, but basically dishonest. You can tell this very easily, almost every time the ball goes out of play. Both sides will appeal for the throw, corner of goal kick, despite the fact that those nearest the ball almost always know exactly who touched it last.

Similarly, except in extreme circumstances, everyone nearby will know whether or not the ball has crossed the line for a goal. The referee may be unsighted, but the players nearby will know. Use goal-line technology by all means, but it wouldn’t be necessary if the goalkeeper who has seen the ball bounce behind the line didn’t carry on and pretend it hadn’t.

There are more extreme examples: the player who goes down as if poleaxed when his opponent looks at him askance; the forward who deliberately trips over the defender in the penalty area and goes flying; the defender who grabs a handful of shirt and then protests his innocence before anyone has even accused him.

All this dishonesty inevitably makes life difficult, if not impossible, for the referee, who is not God or any kind of omniscient being. Oddly the referee is expected to be totally honest: he would be crucified if he was shown not to be. But the players are expected to dive and deceive the referee in any way they can.

I know some other sports are going the same way: no-one expects a professional cricketer to “walk” any longer, even if he knows he is out. But many sportsmen are still honest. A snooker player will call a foul on himself, and a golfer will give himself a penalty – and these are high-paying sports, so it can’t just be the money. Extremely high standards are demanded of Olympic athletes.

On one of my rare outings as a soccer referee at a very amateur level, I was faced with a situation where I suspected a defender of handling the ball, but I hadn’t actually seen it. So I asked him if he had – and he wouldn’t tell me. I knew him personally (as I did many members of both teams), and he was an upstanding, honest individual. So what was going on?

What is it about football in particular that encourages dishonesty? Maybe more than any other sport it reflects a self-centred society with a morality bypass: one that believes anything is legal – as long as you don’t get caught. Cameras may be the solution, but they shouldn’t be necessary.