Spirit of football succumbs to drive for commitment

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The Independent Football

Commitment, like courage, is a much abused word. In the verbal overkill of this sporting life it may apply to anyone from a golfer who brings back blistered hands from the practice ground to a rugby forward who keeps driving in when the cause is all but lost.

Commitment, like courage, is a much abused word. In the verbal overkill of this sporting life it may apply to anyone from a golfer who brings back blistered hands from the practice ground to a rugby forward who keeps driving in when the cause is all but lost.

According to the coaching fraternity and the cliché-mongers on television, commitment explains all in the business of winning and losing, an energy that can be at its most potent when set against technical superiority.

There is nothing new in this but over the past few weeks there has been plenty of evidence to suggest that the relentless quest for total engagement in professional team sports carries the seeds of its own destruction.

To my mind the succession of verbal assaults on match officials in English football is the visible result of stoking hotter and hotter fires in the players to perform at a proper level of intensity. (It would seem that professionals, who by definition are supposed to deliver a high standard, who have careers at stake and families to support and egos to bulwark and team-mates to join in a common cause, have enough natural stimulation without the artificial jive of coaches, but that is another story).

This raises some interesting questions, starting with: how much are managers to blame for the recent upsurge in anarchic attitudes? And if held responsible, will action be taken against them by the authorities? Is the present situation simply proof that leading clubs think themselves answerable only to the game's television paymasters?

This week, Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho, was branded a liar by Uefa, European football's governing body, and charged with bringing the game into disrepute over his claim that Barcelona's coach, Frank Rijkaard, visited the room of the referee, Anders Frisk, during the interval of their Champions' League first leg earlier this month. Mourinho, his assistant Steve Clarke and a security official, Les Miles, stand accused of making "false, wrong and unfounded" allegations.

In its official statement Uefa said: "By further disseminating these wrong and unfounded statements [in a complaint filed by Chelsea], Chelsea allowed its technical staff to deliberately create a poisoned and negative ambience among the teams and to put pressure on the referring officials."

Stern stuff that fits with the growing conclusion that Mourinho pays little if any attention to the spirit of the game. For example, Chelsea, and they are not alone in this, repeatedly seek to gain an illegal advantage from body-checking in the opposition penalty area, something the authorities should look at as a matter of urgency. It has brought them some success, most conspicuously in the home leg against Barcelona when the visiting goalkeeper Victor Valdes was blatantly taken out of the game by Ricardo Carvalho to let John Terry head the winning goal. Anyone who takes the line that such ploys are part of the modern game is condoning a culture of cheating.

To say that cheating and recent cases of unruly behaviour on the field are a symptom of the times in which we live supposes that the impulse today to take up a sport is very often the impulse to make a million.

The trouble is that a generation of sports millionaires, some barely out of their teens, are encouraged by television and popular prints to see themselves as movie and rock stars entitled to adoration, the pamperings of luxury, and no questions asked about comportment on the playing fields. Those who attempt to intellectualise sport, particularly football, are often equally to blame for the behavioural shortcomings of today's heroes. Recently, I read that if the difference between winning and losing turns on an official's call, it must take considerable character not to blow up. The suggestion was that it would take a saint.

Somewhere in the clutter of a room that is amusingly referred to as my study there is a video tape of Celtic's monumental achievements under Jock Stein. At one point Stein, who was as fly as they come, can be heard addressing his players before a Scottish Cup final. "Don't let the referee's decisions upset you," he says.

A man of wise virtue, Stein was responding to the inner belief that it doesn't take a saint to behave responsibly on a football field. It simply takes a type who has been taught the definition of a dimwit.

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