James Lawton: Robben's sham betrays a great talent and the game which has nurtured it

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Cruyff was one of the four or five greatest footballers ever to draw breath.

Certainly there wasn't even a hint that the Golden Dutchman was a cheat. It makes it all the more disappointing that with the great goal of getting vaguely close to the achievements of his fabulous predecessor still a thousand miles away, Robben has claimed that shabby territory for himself.

He sounded like a self-elected football statesman in his broadcast to the nation that had become enraptured by his brilliant raiding. Here was a real one. Perhaps not Cruyff, but someone more likely to touch the stars than scuffle in the dirt. He seemed to know where he was - and the meaning of football. Now he has performed a self-immolation and a terrible disservice to the game that has nourished him.

In one way what the Chelsea player did when the Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina put his hand, illegally but without serious menace, to his face, was a routine piece of Premiership diving, but the timing of it and the reaction of his coach, Jose Mourinho, could hardly have been more depressing.

This was supposed to be the dawning of a fresh age of English football with the old ascendancy of Manchester United and Arsenal put to bed and a decisive Premiership game between the reigning champions, and those of Europe, defining a new order.

New order? New world? New tests of evolutionary football brilliance? Surely no one can be easily pleased. If Chelsea's 2-0 victory represented the truth that they are by some distance the strongest team in England, if it made their second straight Premiership title more than ever a formality, that was about as much as you could say.

Liverpool have improved, no doubt, since their unlikely Champions' League triumph but they are still a long way from being a finished product. The match itself had a deep-set mediocrity of playing ambition. Players like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso operated in small areas of limited impact. There were no big, sweeping plays and the goalkeepers saw little action. Then Robben made a sickening statement about the level of his professional integrity, and what did Mourinho say? He preferred to talk about his 50th Premiership win and the fact that Chelsea might have won 4-0. It is a familiar pattern now.

This is a coach known to complain about opposition diving, despite his authorship of a Porto performance in a Uefa Cup final against Celtic which Martin O'Neill's men will always swear was an ultimate exploration of the tawdry business. Mourinho's protégé Deco was said to be the finest exponent of the skill since Greg Louganis performed it legitimately in an Olympic pool. Mourinho's self-regard, his selective morality when discussing football, his gracelessness in both victory and the odd defeat, have already been explored in this quarter, but Sunday represented a new low in his public habit of washing his hands of any responsibility to lay down something more than a winning formula at Stamford Bridge.

Only those who believe, as Mourinho apparently does, that victory, any kind of victory and advantage, justifies itself, could ignore what Robben did so shamelessly.

Apologists will no doubt point out, accurately enough, that both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger showed a similar reluctance to criticise the misdeeds of their own players. But then it is true that neither was affected by the levels of narcissism which so regularly engulf Mourinho. It meant there was little confusion about where their primary passion resided. Plainly it was in the performance of their teams rather than their own images.

That was regularly reflected in the quality of play on the field. Some recent encounters between Arsenal and United have been disfigured by sour, indeed shocking behaviour, but even the most grudging neutral could not deny that their collisions always carried the promise of open and exciting football. Arsenal went a season without defeat and played exquisitely. United represented the certainty of an attacking game enriched by high, freely expressed skill.

We saw little of that at Stamford Bridge. We saw the new order of highly programmed method football. We saw Robben's dive achieve its sickening purpose, the dismissal of a fellow professional.

We saw the new football. Also on view: another betrayal of the game once played by someone like Johan Cruyff.

A lesson to be learned by our national game

On the day when Chelsea made certain of a new dynasty in English football, one to follow the decade-long dominance of Manchester United and Arsenal, it was interesting that one of the giants of the National Football League came marching back from the mists of history.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's Super Bowl, last won the big prize 26 years ago when the famous Steel Curtain crushed the Los Angeles Rams. In the way it works in English football, the Steelers should now be fighting for their existence - a bit like Nottingham Forest and Derby. Instead, their 23-year-old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (above), the youngest-ever Super Bowl winner in that key position, is conjuring memories of the toothpick chewing boy from the Bayou, Terry Bradshaw.

How does the NFL manage to preserve such wide-open competition?

They have an astonishing concept. It is that a league is only truly as strong as its weakest members. That's why the bottom team gets to pick the best college player - and the Steel Curtain was able to rise again.

Campbell must find new dimension of responsibility

The queue of football men lining up to tell us how we should get behind Sol Campbell in his troubles lengthens by the day.

Bob Wilson, the former Arsenal and Scotland goalkeeper, says that Campbell is both an exceptional player and a man - far "deeper" than the average pro. Chris Waddle echoes the Wilson view. David Beckham adds, "I've known him since I was 14, and he's a great player and an even better person. For some people to say he's not right mentally is not on. That's got nothing to do with anyone else. It's about what he feels and what he's like."

It is natural to feel sympathy for anyone buffeted by personal problems, and any instinct to pass judgment on Campbell's retreat from Highbury is surely reduced by an ongoing uncertainty about the precise nature of his difficulties. However, in the mix of reaction within the game one dimension of understanding seems to have gone missing, along with Sol, yet again.

The reality is that individuals like Campbell live lives of immense privileges and as long as they enjoy them they are obliged to get on with the job for which they are rewarded so extravagantly. When they fail to do so as spectacularly as Arsenal's England defender has in the last few weeks, they are obliged to face certain consequences. One is the conclusion that without help, they are probably unlikely to be able to meet their responsibilities to their employers.

Some report that the appeal of football has paled for Campbell, and that he has long fancied a career in acting. Maybe that is the way that he should try to go. In the meantime though, he, and some of his colleagues, should perhaps realise that periods of personal hardship are known to touch every corner of life - even professional football.

Ironic twist as O'Driscoll finds boot on the other foot

Irony may not be a rampant factor in the thinking of most rugby men but its presence cannot have been missed by too many in the club bar on Saturday night when the subject turned from pre-Renaissance art and literature to the possibility of Brian O'Driscoll being charged with stamping.

For the second half of last year the raging debate concerned the shoulder injury the Irish captain received when he was dumped on the turf in Christchurch by the All Black Tana Umaga. O'Driscoll, spin doctor Alastair Campbell and just about the entire Lions party argued that he had been the victim of a vicious spiking. Umaga claimed that what happened was unfortunate but one of the risks of the game.

Cue the irony: O'Driscoll now says that he didn't stamp on Italian hooker Fabio Ongaro. What happened is that Ongaro simply found himself on the wrong side of a ruck, which is, of course, "part of the game".

Plainly there are parts of rugby in which fastidious care for the well-being of fellow human beings is not conspicuously high, somewhere below the need to identify right and wrong beyond the question of who did what to whom. Until rugby manages to do that, it will continue to operate the morality of the street.