By Ewan Roberts
These are worrying times indeed if the Premier League must look back to a referee-pushing, Roman-saluting, fascist former striker in order to find the last great act of sportsmanship on England's green and pleasant lands.
Twelve years ago, on December 16 2000, West Ham’s hot-headed talisman Paolo Di Canio, a player who had previously immersed himself in controversy rather than fair play, sportingly caught the ball rather than take a goalscoring opportunity as Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard lay slumped on the floor outside the box.
With the scores tied, Di Canio could have headed into an empty net, but, fearing Gerrard had broken his leg, the Italian was unwilling to take advantage of his misfortune. "It was sportsmanship of the highest merit," said Hammers boss Harry Redknapp after the match, and Fifa agreed, handing di Canio the Fair Play award the following year.
The act was totally at odds with the reputation the Italian fascista had cultured for himself, which only served to accentuate the gesture. Of course, it could be argued that it was a typically self-aggrandising act, as narcissistic as his petulant demands to be subbed in the infamous 5-4 win over Bradford.
But seeing Di Canio – so often the antagonist, regularly courting attention for all the wrong reasons – reject the win-at-all-costs attitude that still permeates the Premier League and put notions of fair play ahead of a chance for victory remains a rare and brilliant act of compassion and sportsmanship in a sport where controversy and incident have become the norm.
Fast forward to last weekend, where English football was mired in dispute once again, both on the pitch and in the stands. West Ham's opponents this weekend, West Brom, were on the receiving end of a crude Santi Cazorla dive while Rio Ferdinand was struck by a coin in the Manchester derby before being confronted by a rival fan.
'When did it all become so uncivilised?' asked some. 'When was it ever not?' retorted others. There's a tendency to reminisce about 'the good old days' through rose-tinted glasses, as if players never dived prior to the Premier League becoming such a melting pot of nationalities, as if rival fans skipped to matches hand-in-hand rather than hurling vitriol and missiles towards players. As if.
Messrs Rodney Marsh (he of ill-conceived tsunami 'gag' fame) and Franny Lee were making a splash as long ago as the 1960s and 70s. "I do dive, yes," the former told Shoot magazine, while the latter earned the nickname 'Lee Won Pen' for the ease with which he hit the deck. Still, though, many would point to Jurgen Klinsmann as the first great exponent of the dive, the first example of continental corruption.
There is a jingoistic willingness to deflect the introduction of simulation onto foreign players, to view diving as a modern, foreign-influenced phenomenon, to ignore British cheats – of which there are many – and to even make excuses for them (intentional deception versus 'anticipating contact').
Premier League referees have dished out 19 yellow cards for diving this year, which ranks as the second most amongst the top leagues in Europe (only Serie A have more, with a staggering 41), and the player with the most bookings for simulation in 2012 is a Brit: Gareth Bale. But that's only an indicator of a nation's attitude towards diving, how acceptable it is, and it does not account for those players who escape without caution – usually the most costly and incensing.
The longer dives such as Cazorla's Greg Louganis impression against the Baggies continue to go unpunished, and while retrospective refereeing and video technology is shunned, the longer cheats will continue to prosper.
But while football's governing bodies can eradicate diving, or at the very least the advantage gained from it, their impact on racism is more diluted. Football's example is unlikely to alter warped, ignorant or indoctrinated views on race or religion, though it is hard to argue that Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini & Co. have taken a strong enough stance, especially in terms of punishment.
Uefa have been furiously sweeping the issue under the carpet this week as they announced the disciplinary action to be taken relating to the brawl between Serbia and England Under-21 players. The altercation stemmed from monkey chants from the home crowd directed at Danny Rose, though Uefa make no mention of this in their report. Go figure.
And the penalty for this race-fuelled brawl? £64,998 – a meagre sum for a football association – and a handful of feeble bans. In fact, Nicklas Bendtner was given a heavier fine for his branded Paddy Power underwear. There is a softness where racism is concerned, a lack of ownership, a swiftness to pass it off as an isolated incident. Move along, nothing to see here.
But lawlessness on the pitch seeps into the terraces, and an absence of firm retribution on the field and off it, coupled with the view that footballers – monuments of excess in dire financial times – can escape punishment, enables prejudices and feeds the idea that certain ills of society are acceptable, from racism to diving.
So football must act strongly to prevent the unsavoury from becoming twinned with the sport. It must find a way to encourage the sportsmanship once displayed by Di Canio, and aspire to make basic human decency the norm, not a rare act of isolated civility and integrity in an otherwise cynical and increasingly toxic landscape.
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