Football: Libero - Bet on the good guys

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It was not a good week for professional footballers. Descriptions of them ranged from overpaid and under-talented cheats to indisciplined dissenters who would even bet on their own teams to lose. And those were among the nicer things.

It began last Sunday at Highbury when Arsenal's Patrick Vieira punched the ball into the Aston Villa net and his team-mate Emmanuel Petit pushed the referee Paul Durkin. On Monday, another referee, Mike Reed, was heavily criticised by West Ham's John Hartson for his handling of the match at Leicester.

Vieira has escaped with just a yellow card for his cynical piece of attempted cheating, well spotted by Mr Durkin, who was also quite right to dismiss Petit. In the latter case, the FA have charged Petit with misconduct. Arsenal, who already have Dennis Bergkamp suspended this weekend, clearly have to find out the hard way that indiscipline could cost them the title, while young players need to see that such behaviour is unacceptable.

The FA have also charged Hartson, though his offence is surely less serious in a society that supposedly has free speech - a right exercised by Mr Durkin when he declared that his action against Petit was his duty on behalf of the 30,000 referees in this country who fear physical violence from players.

All this before the publication of a report on gambling in the game produced for the FA by Sir John Smith, who concluded that it was a more widespread problem than believed because players were unaware of absolute rules forbidding betting or believed them outdated. Several players immediately pointed out that they knew of large sums being won on spread betting, in which players can apparently clean up by belting the ball out of play for the first throw-in. Mind you, would you want the stigma of people wondering whether you had done it deliberately or if you were really that bad?

All this evidence paints an unflattering picture of the professional, who is also said to care little about how well he or his club fare as he is guaranteed a fortune anyway. Passion for the game has evaporated in the dash for cash.

Call me old-fashioned but there is another picture. How soon we have forgotten Robbie Fowler on the same Highbury turf attempting to disclaim a penalty last season. The TV pictures of Paul Ince ignoring some verbal abuse and shoving by an Italian in England's recent World Cup match is also an example - to Arsenal as well as the Under-11s - of the value of retaining composure under duress.

Then there are the many pros who would never dream of betting against themselves. I asked Leicester City's Steve Claridge, who has confessed to a gambling problem, whether he ever has. "Never. And anyone who has seen me play knows I couldn't," he said. Occasionally when he was at Birmingham City, he would bet on his own team to win - "if I thought Barry Fry had picked the right team." That practice will stop now that he has been made aware that the rule will be enforced.

So, Libero suspects, it is with most players, though there is clearly scope for abuse, with vigilance the antidote. Players should be aware that someone, sooner or later, will sell the story of their misdemeanours. It is incumbent on the administrative bodies to ensure that money filters down the game fairly to lower-division players so that the temptations to which Tony Kay, Bronco Layne and Peter Swan succumbed 30 years ago are dispelled.

As with any industry, football has its fair share of cheats, crooks and charlatans, though this observer's experience is that they are mostly on its periphery, as the "bungs report" reveals with its shadowy figures all trying to make money out of players.

Some players, though only at the top where the real money washes about, are indeed prima donnas who treat journalists, and, more important, the public with disdain. It becomes amusing to see them as they reach 30 and begin to think about new careers, trying to rehabilitate their image.

But mostly, when you can get near them, they are accommodating and thoughtful people. I was interviewing a player on Monday when he wondered if I minded breaking for an hour while he went to give a talk and present prizes at a soccer school. All over the country, pros are doing just that every day.

It only goes to prove that despite weeks like the last one, football can remain more of a force for good than bad. And that there are two types of people in life: those who generalise and those who don't.

IT IS neither "Lasagne" nor "Lausanne - Ja!" that is being sung at the end of the Champions' League anthem, insists Andrew Isitt, a Wolves supporter. "After considerable thought, I came up with 'A Champignon'," he writes. "This, being French for mushroom, could be a reference to the way in which the competition has expanded rapidly this season. Alternatively, it might refer to the bullshit fed to the public by Uefa on the genuine footballing reasons for expanding the competition to include also-rans."

YET more geographical nonsense: where exactly on the pitch is "down the cafe"? Overheard at a local park match: "Take him wide, Dave. He'll follow you down the cafe, that one." Any week now we are planning a new map of the modern field. All contributions welcome.