Why can't family life be more like football?

Park Life
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The Independent Culture
EACH YEAR, one or two sporting moments lodge themselves in the folk memory, and this year's brace happened within 20 minutes of each other, when England played Argentina in the World Cup. I may have forgiven David Beckham for his lapse that day. Certainly, I am able once more to marvel at his skill with free kicks, and I can even bring myself to feel slightly sorry that he and Posh can't go out for a quiet drink like any other young couple.

But who can have forgotten the characteristic outburst of petulance that makes him the fall-guy of a perfect modern cautionary tale? For me, Beckham is like one of the mythological heroes of the ancient world combined with The Boy Who Played With Matches (and ended up burnt to a cinder), as told to me by my mother when I was a small boy.

This week I pressed this cautionary tale into action when my own sometimes petulant seven-year-old, Darcy, came home from school seething with indignation that he had been given a detention: all he and his friend had done, he told us, was to step in and prevent a third boy from being pushed around after football in the playground.

"I didn't start it, and it wasn't my fault," he insisted. In fact, as Darcy made pretty clear, his behaviour had been little short of heroic, and he rubbed it in by ostentatiously writing a Christmas card to his co-accused in which he pledged to carry on "protecting" their friend.

His PR campaign worked well enough to send me in to discuss the matter with his teacher. An experienced reader of junior spin-doctoring, she left me in little doubt that, far from being some awful mistake, Darcy's detention was richly deserved as the culmination of a term's worth of niggling infractions.

This left me in a quandary: how was I to explain to Darcy that while I applauded his anti-bullying sentiment, I also supported his teacher's disciplinary action?

So I told the tale of David Beckham, The Boy Who Lost the World Cup. "Remember when England played Argentina in France `98?" I asked Darcy. He cast his mind back across the dim mists of time to last summer. "Remember when Michael Owen scored that amazing goal, but Beckham got himself sent off and so England lost?" Yes, he remembered it, but so what? "Well, Beckham was the one who was fouled, so he didn't start it, and the Argentine player wasn't punished at all," I explained.

"But it was Beckham who kicked out and got himself sent off, which meant England were out of the World Cup. He often behaves like that and gets away with it, but this time he was punished. Now you could say it was unfair on Beckham - and it was," I suggested. "But everyone still blames him because it was silly to react in the way he did."

It occurred to me at this point that the referee has the enormous advantage of meting out justice on a summary basis. It may be uneven, even random at times, but it is dispensed on the spot and there is little point in taking issue with it - indeed, it is against the rules even for adult players to argue with the referee.

Few sensible people would advocate a return to the barbarities of corporal punishment, but the quasi-judicial disciplinary codes that have replaced it, with their various grades of offence leading up to detention during or after school, have lost that instant link between crime and retribution. The whole lengthy process breeds a legalistic culture in which arguing back is not only the norm, it becomes a sacred right. Teachers become judges and children barrack-room lawyers, with parents wheeled in for special occasions like cut-rate QCs. And, as any parent will tell you, the endless argument over why a certain infringement was wrong is often just as wearing as the offence itself.

All of which leaves the referee on the sports field, with his whistle and colour-coded cards, as the last exponent of summary justice in our world. Semi-judicial committees may impose or lengthen bans on any player who infringes, but they can't overturn a sending off as yet - the referee still wields absolute power in his domain.

Recognising this, I once bought a set of yellow and red cards from my local sports shop as an aid to discipline at one of the boys' birthday parties. Naturally, it didn't work. Guests goaded me and thumped each other under my very nose in the quest of cards: each one wanted to the be the first to score red. People moan about the hardship of being a ref these days - but it's much harder being a teacher or a dad.