Football's creed of profit corrupts nation's values

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The Independent Online

Sport in the first decade of the 21st century holds no encouragement for anyone who in these troubled times tenaciously clings to the belief that something can be done to restore the best values of games-playing.

Sport in the first decade of the 21st century holds no encouragement for anyone who in these troubled times tenaciously clings to the belief that something can be done to restore the best values of games-playing.

If some people think this fatuous or sentimental or pathetically typical of my generation, I'm pretty sure they are people who are prepared to accept most things in the cause of what passes for progress. To expect Corinthian behaviour from sports performers who in many cases earn more in a year than the majority of folk get in a working lifetime may be absurd, even unjust, but what sort of a world are we living in when anyone who plays fair, gives everything and loses with a smile is likely to provoke salvos of raucous laughter?

It is anybody's guess when this deplorable attitude began to prevail but a pretty safe bet is that it came hand in hand with the onset of commercialism. What we have today is a creed conforming to the pressures of promotion and profit, one that scorns the legend of courtesy to opponents and respect for authority.

Sadly, the worst possible examples are now often set by some of the most prominent sports performers, members of the élite corps who are admiringly interviewed by sycophants and receive the same adoring space as the members of rock bands and soap actors. "What chance have we got of bringing youngsters up with a sense of fair play in sport when they see so much cheating on television?" a schoolmaster recently said.

Uppermost in this troubled fellow's mind was the acrimony that has persisted throughout the current series of Tests between the cricketers of England and Sri Lanka. "It is difficult enough to persuade boys that there is no credit in winning at all costs without having them exposed to the idea that anything goes regardless of conscience," he added.

The further we go on the more it seems that sport is floundering about in a fog of cynicism. Test cricketers appeal for everything and wind up the opposition with insults. Despite the threat of punitive action (seldom carried out), footballers with only a sketchy knowledge of the laws continue to hound officials. Rugby's complicated laws are constantly manipulated.

Raul's handball goal for Real Madrid against Leeds in the Champions' League last week was less bothersome to my mind than the booking his team-mate Luis Figo engineered to ensure that he would enter the quarter-finals with a clean sheet.

It is not to me any longer a question of who is to blame for the present lamentable state of affairs. Such a testy question of right and wrong is transcended by the possible effects on an upcoming generation as described by coaches of a responsible disposition. "We've already got many young players with more money than they know what to do with," one said. "They have agents looking after their affairs but what is being done to educate them for a life after sport? How many clubs accept that as an obligation? When I recently put that to a prominent manager, his reply was that he had enough to do with the team and his employers without acting as a social worker. It's no wonder that young footballers get into trouble."

In the enormous reverberation of sport's popularity not enough attention is paid to the cause of confrontations on the fields of play that bring it into disrepute. Driven by pressure from above and without, the coach uses every device imaginable, and some unimaginable, to stoke hotter and hotter fires in his players. Since this happens from an early age the notion that football-type character equals citizen-type character is Orwellian.

Each of us brings our own sensibility and neuroses to the sports arena, enabling us to find whatever we want there, from fun and games to hero and scapegoat. Trouble is that the desire for victory urgently upheld by ruthless owners overwhelms every other consideration.

The old idea of sporting knight-errants guiding the youth of a nation into a promised land of the clean-cut and fair is never going to be repeated, because the youth, corrupted by warped sporting values, simply will defect to the next sonic-boom rock group or whatever. When that was put to a club owner he shook his head. To believe it would have compelled him to accept the unacceptable: the word deplorable.

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