Fallen Hero: James Lawton on how we're all being cheated

If a player with Thierry Henry's solid reputation for fairness and integrity can cheat to save the match for his team and country, then is there any point left to sport at all? James Lawton laments the spectacle of shameless play-acting on the World Cup stage, while our medical and theatrical experts offer their judgements on the histrionics that are now just another part of the game
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The Independent Football

The nation is shocked. Our favourite adopted footballer, Thierry Henry, is caught out in a grotesque piece of cheating. An unmanly, unutterably cheap act of gamesmanship. He clutches his head and the national stomach churns.

But why? Is it any more surprising than finding a scantily clad temptress in a bordello? Sadly, not - and if anyone in England feels a hint of betrayal that Henry, the luminous star of Arsenal, an imported national treasure, a man of sophistication and style in his off-field musings, has let them down, they should run their mind back to two earlier World Cups. He or she should remember Naples, 1990, and St Etienne, in 1998.

There was no mock horror when first Gary Lineker, then Michael Owen - national heroes and ultimately fresh-faced boys from next door - appeared to dive for vital penalty kicks against Cameroon and Argentina respectively. No, it was glory before conscience then, and no one reflected on the levelling power of fate when England were ejected from both tournaments.

The impact of Henry's outrageous kidology in his claiming of a free kick which would probably have been awarded anyway was mostly to do with the image he has created for himself. It was one of almost imperious moral rectitude. In the end France beat Spain with impressive authority, but the fact that the crucial free kick was tainted by Henry's theatrical posing will inevitably linger longer in the mind than the glory of his ageing team-mate and match-winner Zinedine Zidane.

That former world champions France, fighting for what some considered some their last chance of remaining among the élite of the game, used dubious means was scarcely a shock.

But then Henry does tend to come down from the mountain top with his own personal set of stone tablets.

After Arsenal's recent defeat in the Champions' League final in Paris he railed against the referee and accused the winners, Barcelona, of behaving with disgraceful gamesmanship. Yet the goal Henry scored in that match came directly from as blatant a piece of dishonesty as his own was this week. In Paris, it was his team-mate, the young Ivory Coast player Emmanuel Eboué, who fell to the turf without contact for a free kick in a dangerous position.

Now the fear here in Germany is that a World Cup which convinced some that it might just be making an uplifting moral statement about how the game should be played - with passion but fairness and a sense of comradeship between winners and losers - will inevitably submit a little more to the ruling anarchy of professional sport with each increasingly pressurised step on to the way to the final in Berlin on 9 July.

But then even in a tournament that initially blazed with the marvellous skills of Argentina and the fervour of hosts Germany, it was not as though Henry's squalid gamesmanship came out of a clear sky.

Just 24 hours earlier the Italian full-back Fabio Grosso had shamelessly dived for the last-second penalty that carried his team past Australia - and was there a quiver of angst back in Italy as the streets filled with flag-waving, horn-tooting motorists? There is still no sign of that, even as the national game fights a series of corruption charges and former Italian international Gianluca Pessotto, recently appointed team manager of one of the clubs involved, Juventus, falls from a Turin building reportedly clutching a set of rosary beads.

The truth, in every corner of the sports world, seems to be that winning, and in any fashion, is what matters most.

For some, of course, this bent penny dropped many years ago. Really, it is hard to know where to start the story of the decline of sporting values. It is a case of sticking a pin in the sports atlas.

You might want to start in Seoul 18 years ago when Ben Johnson, a Jamaican running under the flag of Canada, tested positive after a world record-shattering run to gold in the Olympic 100 metres. Lauded by his adopted country for some 24 hours after the glory of beating the American Carl Lewis and Britain's Linford Christie, John became a pariah overnight - the butt of 100 instant jokes, including: "What will be the first thing Ben Johnson says after serving his suspension? Answer: Sir, would you like fries with your burger?"

But then Johnson was a huge, Ferrari-driving hero , despite long-held doubts about about his methods, right up to the moment his drug test was announced. Some time earlier, student-athletes at the University of California in Los Angeles had been asked if they would accept the dangers to health implicit in performance-enhancing drug-testing if it guaranteed them an Olympic medal. Only one in 10 of them demurred.

In the wake of the Johnson scandal, the Olympic president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared that sport had a "fight to the death" against cheating, and there were great cries of support in Britain. Yet our local hero Linford Christie was lionised when he won the gold medal four years later in Barcelona, despite having tested positive in Seoul four years earlier and eventually finishing his running career under suspension.

No doubt there are vast differences between the crimes of an Henry and a Johnson, but where do you draw the line once it is accepted that almost everybody cheats, in some way or another, in pursuit of sporting success? Increasingly, Michael Schumacher, some people's idea of the most talented motor racer ever born, and certainly the holder of most world driving titles, finds it difficult. Recently he was charged with parking his car in front of a rival competing for his pole position in the Grand Prix of Monaco. One rival said that what Schumacher had done was hardly believable. The German ace merely shrugged his shoulders and carried on.

Another date in the decline of sporting values : Las Vegas, 1997, and the bewilderment that followed the sickening, bemusing discovery that the world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, was prepared to bite off the ears of his challenger Evander Holyfield in his battle for supremacy.

The fight referee, the late Mills Lane, a former US marine and a working district judge, made an impassioned speech which lamented the death of sport as he had grown up to know it. "I long for the day when we can believe in sport again, when we don't see our heroes plastered all over the news pages and broadcasts, when we can trust them to do the right thing in every competition situation. But, gentleman, I fear that day has passed. I never thought I'd live to see what I saw tonight."

Henry, a man of undoubted charm and principle in such matters as his eloquently waged war against racism, will no doubt be stunned to be drawn into such a wide-ranging debate about the decline of values in sport. But then if you dip your feet into murky water like this there is every chance you will get wet.

In domestic football, cheating is on nothing less than a rampage. Last season there was the shocking case of Arjen Robben's dive when pushed, quite gently, by the Liverpool goalkeeper José Reina. His Chelsea manager José Mourinho, dismised the outrage. Henry's club manager Arsène Wenger accused the Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy of being one of the game's most overt cheats. But he had nothing to say when his own player Robert Pires perpetrated what many still feel is the worst case of "simulation" in winning a penalty against Portsmouth - a sorry distinction some award him because he went out of his way to make contact with the defender.

As this 18th World Cup approaches, the final whistle there are still the highest hopes that a message of encouragement can be sent out from the football fields of Germany.

Already we have seen some breathtaking examples of the world game at its best. Though match officials have now been ordered to pull back on the first draconian policy of issuing yellow cards as though they were so many pieces of confetti - for fear that the final two teams would decide the tournament with farcically reduced playing resources - their early games were in fact markedly clean and good-spirited.

The first crisis came at the weekend, when Holland and Portugal fought out a mean and testy match that resulted in 16 cautions and four dismissals. Here, the rush to glory most beautifully exemplified by Argentina's quite beautiful 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro hit a roadblock - one imposed by the old rule that winning, however you could do it, was the most important thing.

Argentina, the eternal entertainers Brazil, renascent France, the powerful Germans, even labouring England if they find a new stride and confidence, still have the means to provide a powerful redemption.

But that first optimism which flowed so suddenly, so unexpectedly earlier this month, is now inevitably somewhat jaded.

It was made inevitably so by the picture of Henry clutching his head so melodramatically, in so calculated a fashion.

In him the contradictions are particularly hard to accept and tolerate because he is supposed to be about something different. He has been seen to represent football at its most exquisite. He is capable of exploring areas of skill and inspiration that sometimes appear to be his alone. Yes, of course, some of his mannerisms are not to the more Corinthian of tastes. His regard for himself often appears to be considerable but those who know him well speak of deep values and a feeling for the always attainable glory of his sport.

When he announced in the spring that he was staying at Arsenal rather than moving to Barcelona or Real Madrid, the celebrations ran beyond the tribal passions of north London.

This, so many said, was good for England's football. It bestowed a style and distinction that would have left with him on his journey to Spain. Not all of this is invalidated by his opportunism in Hanover this week, but suddenly the spell has been broken.

If Thierry Henry, the supreme classicist of the game, could stoop to such chicanery, what were the others capable of? Who was there to mark out a line, and say that football, all of sport, is too precious to be surrendered to the cheats?

Henry may shrug in his Gallic way, he may even tell himself that he did merely that which is required of the modern professional. He helped his team to win. Now it seems that sooner or later everyone in sport says this. One by one the illusions have been spilled, and no doubt the process began long before Diego Maradona, one of the greatest footballers of all time, became a hate-figure for English football fans with his illegal goal in Mexico City 20 years ago.

Back then, though, there was a little innocence in the outrage. Today it seems out of date, if not hopelessly naive. This seems especially so when Thierry Henry, who was thought to be unique, turns out to be just another one of the cheating crowd.

How to tell if they're really injured
By Dr Fred Kavalier

* Is the player moving?

Broken bones and joint injuries will usually cause the player to stop moving entirely, both to avoid the pain and protect the injury. So, the classic roll past the referee is in fact a fairly reliable sign that no serious damage has been done. Likewise, if a player is hugging his knee, or even bending it in order to rub it, he is unlikely to be seriously injured.

* Does the player's face look pale and grey?

A bad injury will have an immediate effect on the body's blood circulation. Blood will be diverted to the site of the injury, causing an immediate change in the complexion. If the player looks pale and grey in the face, he'll need the stretcher. If he's nice and pink he'll most likely be up and about as soon as his teammates have caught their breath and had a quick drink.

* Did the offending player's studs make contact?

A fairly strong kick may cause no more than bruising, but studs are much more dangerous. Even a light blow from a set of fast-moving studs can gash muscles and injure or tear tendons.

* Did an ankle or knee move the wrong way?

A small movement in the wrong direction can cause a major internal injury to a joint - as happened to Michael Owen when he ruptured his anterior cruciate knee ligament. They often look minor at first, but replays should identify any twists.

* Did they arch their back?

Neck and back injuries are more common in rugby than in football. Although a nudge from a defender may leave the victim arching backwards on the floor, or pressing his hands into the small of his back, a player with a serious spinal injury will be flat out, probably not moving.

* Is the blood really serious?

Cuts are rarely the sign of lasting damage. Even a minor cut on the scalp will bleed profusely. But a player with head injury that causes concussion probably won't bleed at all.

The impact of Henry's kidology was mostly to do with the image he has created for himself

The play's the thing: our awards for the best dramatic performances
By Michael Coveney, theatre critic (and football fanatic)

MICHAEL BALLACK OF GERMANY for failing consistently to match his long-range goal-scoring efforts with appropriate facial modesty. As shot after shot went whistling past the Swedish posts last weekend, Ballack treated us to a series of face-pulls and head-shakes that would have had Sir Henry Irving in his prime booed off at the Lyceum Theatre. The model here should be England's Steven Gerrard, who just shrugs and gets on with it. Ballack is trying to justify his transfer to Chelsea, but failing to convince us that he is an honest bloke as well as a great player.

SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON OF ENGLAND for his sustained impersonation of Mike Yarwood apeing an England football coach. He sits on the bench like a wooden plank (and probably should be checked for dry rot) and shows as much emotion as a (von) Trappist monk on a singalong-a-Sound of Music outing. When England scored, he got up and punched the air, but the air punched back, so he sat down again. His special award might be for understatement. And that would be an understatement.

FABIAN BARTHEZ OF FRANCE for his general air of pretend self-importance, and his technical unsuitability as a goalkeeper. The man should be preening around with supermodels (which he does anyway), or at least confining his activities to the basketball pitch. His constant look of offended sensitivity makes any halfway serious actor in EastEnders look like Judi Dench. As Stanislavsky once said, there are no small parts, only small actors. I can't comment on Fabian's parts, but I can on his acting. It stinks.

RONALDO OF BRAZIL for giving the impression that he is still a world-class striker while living on a diet of meat pies. He sees the ball and he runs, but otherwise he lollops around like Michael Gambon in the current production of Beckett's Eh Joe, with nothing to say and no reason to say it. His fluky goal against Ghana established him as the World Cup's top scorer of all time; that will be just 15 goals, then, and an accolade as the fattest forward since the truly great Ferenc Puskas; Puskas was Hungarian, Ronaldo's not but keeps eating anyway.

ARJEN ROBBEN OF HOLLAND for his persistent over-reactions to almost anything that happens on the pitch, like a baby deprived of its rattle. After the most innocuous of challenges, Robben's eyes go wide, his arms go wider, his face crinkles up into a thousand pleats and, as he stutters to his twinkling feet, he starts plotting his next pathetic sympathy-grabbing ploy. He deserves to be given a red card, and a thousand raspberries, the moment that he steps on to any pitch.

ADRIANO OF BRAZIL for his brazen dive in an attempt to win a penalty against Ghana. What made it even worse was Adriano's meek acknowledgement that he'd sinned. This kind of behaviour merits a sin-bin confinement of 10 minutes, a yellow card and £50,000 deducted from wages. The fact that he then scored a blatantly offside goal in the same match only made matters worse. The saddest performance by a country mile since Donald Wolfit went over the top at the old Camden Palace.

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