Saturday, 17 August 2013

In praise of ethics in sport

The football season seems to start earlier each year. I'm sure, when I was a boy, that games didn't start in early August, as they have for all of England’s professional and semi-professional leagues bar the Premier League. My memory might be playing tricks on me but one thing is certain: this weekend sees the beginning of another season of Premier League football.

Hot on the heels of an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable England v Scotland game on Wednesday, I'm hoping that this season's Premier League fixtures will be played in a similar spirit. On Wednesday night, the ancient football foes contested a hard-fought game with skill and passion in equal measure. There were one or two feisty moments, as is only to be expected in competitive fixtures, but what especially struck me about the game was the absence of any malice or cheating. I don't recall seeing any players diving to the turf as if felled by an axe; nor do I remember clusters of aggrieved individuals surrounding the referee and trying to intimidate him into giving a decision their way.

England v Scotland was a tough, dynamic game; it was football as it should be. On Sunday, I'll be watching my club, Chelsea, when they host newly promoted Hull City. Or rather, as they are now known, Hull City Tigers. Quite why the new name was required is beyond me; likewise, I don't understand why one of the other promoted teams, Cardiff City, elected to stop playing in their traditional all-blue strip and play in red.

Doubtless there is some marketing rationale for both changes. And lately, reading Rob Steen's excellent 1995 book The Mavericks: English Football When Flair Wore Flairs, I'm reminded of the era of greats like Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson, Charlie George, Stan Bowles and Rodney Marsh. The book brilliantly evokes their time as players, and is all the more intriguing with its accounts of how flair players dealt with the likes of Ron 'Chopper' Harris and Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter. Often enough, they gave as good as they got.

Football today is faster and more tactically complex than it was when the mavericks graced the pitches with their fancy footwork. But while the game has evolved, it has, in a sense, lost something. Rob Steen's book is a portrait of a more honest game than we see today. Players would try to gain an advantage by bending the rules, but somehow what they did strikes me as more ethical than the players of the modern game who feign injury and harangue officials. This sort of behaviour is doubtless a consequence of the vastly greater sums of money at stake in football now but there is no excuse for it. It demeans the game and those who play it.

Needless to say, I'll be hoping for a Chelsea win on Sunday. I also wish Hull City Tigers well in their new Premier League incarnation. But as much as I hope for Chelsea success, I hope that maybe, just maybe, this season we will have the privilege of watching games like England v Scotland: hard-fought, competitive and with no quarter given, but with a fundamental honesty. Ethics, in sport, are just as important as they are in other walks of life.