James Lawton: The thud and blunder of the football field still a far cry from the world's killing fields

Football's own defence is it is a global success lying in the roots of human feeling
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The Independent Online

There are times when you can most keenly appreciate something which, while flawed like most things in life, has an extraordinary capacity to move the spirit, to make you feel better just by knowing its depth and its potential to produce something fine and enduring and beautiful, only when it comes under intemperate - or just plain silly - attack.

Maybe after the year it had, football is an unlikely candidate for such a surge of approval. But then how odd that the catalyst for such feeling should be provoked by The Independent's brilliant and courageous Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk.

For some extraordinary reason, which he revealed, consciously or otherwise, almost certainly lies in his distressing experiences at a minor public school - when he was beaten by a prefect for reading a book on Czech history rather than cheering on the bunch of muddied idiots - his phrase - who formed the football team - Fisk announced on these pages at the weekend that football and violence - not mere hacking and playful attacks on the genitals of rivals but the extremes of human brutality - are inextricably linked.

This just shows that the finest intuition and expertise is perhaps not a moveable feast. Fisk's thesis - partly based on his first-ever reading of a sports book, the American best-seller How Soccer Explains the World - is that because a number of psychopaths have attached themselves to the world's most popular game, it is proof that football, the sport of Pele and Johan Cruyff and Sir Bobby Charlton, is an inherently vicious expression of human behaviour.

Does this mean that because Stalin occasionally showed up at the Bolshoi, ballet has to take part of the blame for some of the worst genocide the world has ever known? Here is one of the more inflammatory passages in Fisk's piece: "The connections between football and violence - and, by extension, sadism - are truly creepy. An Irish friend who was a member of the European Union monitoring team in the Balkans recounted to me during the Bosnian war how he witnessed an exchange of bodies between Serb and Croatian armies near the city of Mostar.

"'Both sides brought their corpses in sacks on lorries and they backed them up to a small field. But when the Serbs emptied their sacks, it was evident that the heads of their Croatian bodies had been chopped off. I didn't believe what I would see. Right there, in front of the Croats who had brought along their Serbian corpses, the Serbs began playing football with the heads of the dead Croatians. They were laughing because they knew how much they would enrage the Croats'."

Interestingly, when the siege of Sarajevo was finally lifted in 1996, when people could at last walk down the street without fear of being picked off by a sniper, football was, far from a symbol of such brutally, an expression of liberation and of course a match was organised almost instantly, though helpfully without the assistance of former sadists who once wore the colours of Fisk's old school.

Heaven knows, football has known better times. But when Zinedine Zidane headbutted his opponent in the final of the World Cup last summer - the most watched event in human history - he still had the power to shock most witnesses to their bones. The only man to celebrate publicly, it seemed, was the President of France, Jacques Chirac.

The current horror on the field is not violence but cheating and this surely is another invasion from beyond the touchline. For whole generations of footballers the idea of diving and feigning injury was anathema. Fisk talks about the terrible sectarianism in football, and offers Celtic and Rangers as a supreme example. Of course it is horrible, but where are its origins; in a beautifully simple game or the rancid tides of political and social history? Oligarchs buy into football for power and for glory and maybe a laundering of their image. But does that make football the cause or the victim?

The truth is that football carries its own defence. It has touched every corner of the world and it is a success that lies in the roots of human feeling. If Fisk had looked up from his no doubt splendid book, he might have seen a little spirit and a little courage; indeed one of those "muddied idiots" might just have been a putative C B Fry, who before he became mesmerised by Adolf Hitler in a troubled and mentally challenged older age, had a distinguished career as a multitalented international sportsman, a politician, a teacher, an editor, a publisher, and someone who, after due consideration, decided to turn down the offer of the throne of Albania.

Fisk offers us the Serbian war criminal - and owner of Obilic FC - Arkan as a definitive football image. But then others might suggest the late Pope John Paul II, a very useful goalkeeper in his Polish youth.

Albert Camus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for "important literary production which with clear-signed earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times," also played in goal.

That he was struck down by tuberculosis before he could develop a promising career as a goalkeeper with Algiers University's junior team was one of the great disappointments of his life, one he assuaged with a series of masterpieces and work with the French resistance.

Camus probably has to be the chief witness for football's defence. He did, after all, once declare: "All I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football."

Mourinho may be swept away by storm of his own making

As the plot thickens at Stamford Bridge, natural sympathy for the embattled Jose Mourinho does not flow as though from a geyser.

However, if it is true - as he has suggested - that the sale of the central defenders William Gallas and Robert Huth was not his doing, his dilemma does take us not to a complete breakdown in the qualities of the "Special One" but a truth of modern football.

It is that, ultimately, the men who make the success, who shape a team, don't always carry the weight they are due. Who would push for the sale of crucial players going into a hugely challenging season, one when success in the Champions' League had become so utterly vital? Not the football man, of course, but a money man with an idea of tidying up the budget.

Mourinho has plainly made his own mistakes, most of them the product of overweening arrogance. His latest attack on his players is the clearest evidence that he is indeed struggling desperately to align his self-belief with his current expectations.

There is no doubt, however, about where he has caused himself most damage in the eyes of his increasingly impatient patron Roman Abramovich. Mourinho's attitudes, his cavalier approach to truth, his constant attempt to occupy the centre of the spotlight, have hugely contributed to the distaste with which most of the football world beholds Chelsea.

Abramovich did not buy Chelsea in order for him and his club to become hated. That is not what football owners are about. They often want profit but in the case of an Abramovich that is less pressing than the need to present a popular and engaging image.

As the "Special One" sweats it on the Kings Road, Guus Hiddink, another Abramovich hireling, would probably be wise to check on flights to Heathrow. It is a complicated story, no doubt, but whatever his fate, Mourinho should spend most time looking at himself.

Even an England win would not conjure phoenix from Ashes

Whatever the score from Sydney this morning, do not let us pretend that a victory for England would be cause for anything more than another reproach.

Recent Ashes history is studded with meaningless English victories. The reaction is generally the same.

England are on the way back, they have shown what might have been with a few more breaks and a little fine-tuning. But not this time. Surely, this is a tour where defeat has been so profound that nothing that could happen in the fifth Test would have any bearing on the essential verdict.

It is that the difference between 5-0 and 4-1 is of the smallest degree.

England have been whipped in every way possible, and what we have now is the most basic of damage control.

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