Football: Thin line in rights and wrongs of competing

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The Independent Online
PLEASE HELP. I'm a football fan and a father and I'm becoming confused. What's right and what's wrong? What's discretionary and what's ridiculously lenient? Is good sportsmanship necessary or just an optional extra? My five-year-old needs to know.

Here's the story. On Saturday evening in the local park, I teamed up with Adam (my son) against a friend and his son. The game was beautifully balanced at eight-all. Then, the other lad tackled Adam and ran clear. Adam - furious - pursued him and, with the flat of his hand, swatted him to the floor. My son was sent to sit under the tree and was subsequently disciplined.

On Sunday afternoon, at Highbury, Patrick and his mates teamed up against Roy and his mates. The game was beautifully balanced at one-all. Then, Vieira and Keane had a physical meeting of minds and there was a brief dust-up. Graham Poll, in loco parentis, did a splendid job of calming everybody down and the game continued to its thrilling conclusion.

Who's right? It is a genuine question to which I don't know the answer. Establishing control without sanction is extremely difficult (particularly when Manchester United meet Arsenal in such a compelling and necessarily physical contest) and Mr Poll has been praised by several senior footballing figures for a fine refereeing performance.

On one level, the official appears to have been refreshingly discretionary. In the heated circumstances, he seems to have applied calm common-sense to a flashpoint involving a couple of fantastically fulsome footballers. One is inclined to applaud his shunning of the recent trend towards robot- refereeing. Arsene Wenger did mention the word "lenient", but Mr Poll has won broad approval.

On the other hand, however, what is a punished little boy to think when he sees those pictures? Was his misdemeanour all that different? Why shouldn't international stars be summoned and told that they're having "no sweets for a week"?

The trouble is that I'm in dreadful danger of sinking into a trap of hypocrisy. I wouldn't have Arsenal v Manchester United any other way. Quite apart from the exceptional skill on show, I relish the whole confrontational element; I admire the unflinching support of managers for their charges; I love to see Keane and Vieira... those tackles, those square-ups. These are elite competitors, competing to the limit. Occasional loss of temper is surely a forgivable by-product of the whole invigorating show.

But Adam - whose lifetime brush with the professional game is likely to be confined to his coincidental name-sharing with Peterborough United's left-back - was merely competing to his limit. Should I let him have his Smarties back?

Nor does this week's game of Scruples end there. These pages, on Wednesday, included a heart-felt but perfectly objective article by Glenn Moore about Blackpool's dubious equaliser against Gillingham on Saturday - the result, in case you missed it, of Gillingham yielding possession so that an injured Blackpool player could receive treatment.

My affinity for the Gills - the inevitable consequence of a Kentish upbringing - is considerably more dilute than Glenn's. However - again in a parental context - it is impossible not to match his level of disturbance at the manner of the goal.

From time to time, the natural rhythm of my back-garden matches against Adam is interrupted by his two-year-old brother's desperate cries for help from atop the slide. While Dad's away, saving the life of one son, the other - in his innocence (of which, despite my earlier story, he retains a plentiful supply) - takes the opportunity to score.

For a while, such behaviour was laughed off by his indulgent father. But, this month, Adam has reached the point of being nearer six than five and I've started trying to teach him that - although he might not appear to have breached any of the basic rules he comprehends - his goal is somehow "not right".

So, what should I tell him about Blackpool's goal? In their high-stakes, professional context, does it become understandable? Is it actually right that Adam should learn about life (and sport) in its full competitive reality? Is it really "dog eat dog"? Is there anything wrong with that?

And it gets still more complicated. Having insisted upon temperate sporting behaviour under all circumstances, should I admit to my pangs of sympathy for the rantings of Peter Taylor (Gillingham's manager) in the wake of the incident?

I'm sure of only one thing - that, in an environment where boots and heads and reds and yellows and fans and tempers are crashing cacophonously together, appreciation of the other man's predicament is essential. Otherwise, in the words of a thousand forlorn soap characters: "I just don't know what I think anymore". Help!

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