Chris McGrath: Sympathy for the devils (even Tiger and Thierry)

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Say, did you hear what I heard? About Eldrick? Yeah, Eldrick Woods in accounts. Well, I'm not saying anything out of turn here. The whole office is talking about it. Fact is, he's been staying in a hotel all week.

Someone saw him having breakfast when they used the gym there. And that same morning, when his secretary asked if he was okay, he came up with some story about being tired because the baby had kept him awake ... The word is that his wife found out he had been fooling around with some other woman, and came after him with a nine-iron. Can you believe that? A nine-iron!

Now, what is the civilised response to this disclosure?

"What a pity. They had seemed pretty happy together to me. Let's hope they can sort it out. But I guess it's none of our business, really, so we had better give the guy a bit of space."

Or: "That jerk. I'm going to get this out in the open. Next board meeting. Eldrick, I'm gonna say, you make me sick. We all know nobody does accounts like you do accounts. We all know, because if we didn't, that haughty way of yours would tell us. But accounts that smart need clean hands. It would be different, if you were slapdash. You could do what you liked, because none of us would give a damn. As it is, in betraying your beautiful wife and family, you have betrayed us all. You owe us, man. You owe us big time. Now stand up like a man and tell us exactly what you've been doing. We want names. We want measurements. And we want positions."

Because he is probably the greatest golfer of all, and not an accountant, Tiger knows he will be fed to the lions. But the bottom line remains the same. There's a civilised way to deal with this, and another way. You simply can't look down your nose at the sort of gross emotional self-indulgence seen on the Jerry Springer Show, and the next minute drool sanctimoniously over the private failings of Eldrick Woods.

Woods is being charged with hubris, as though he only ever treated his gifts as a means to commercial opportunism. And he is being charged with all manner of curious debts – to fans, to golf itself – that apparently oblige him to share candidly his "transgressions" and contrition.

But then we always revel in the frailties of our supermen. In fact, the more you think about it, the less wholesome become the day-to-day satisfactions we derive from sport. How many cherished as the highlight of their football week not just Chelsea's Carling Cup exit, but the identity of those who screwed up? A German, ie an automaton as incapable of missing a penalty as of perceiving irony. And a teenager who finds himself the hapless symbol of the Premier League's rapacity. Hah! That'll learn 'em.

The next evening, Arsène Wenger's latest lapse in manners was seized on as another opportunity to caricature this beacon of sanity as a mad professor. To Wenger, of course, Manchester City are the very negation of everything he is trying to achieve, assembled overnight at any price. But the more he insists on his vision, the more people love to ridicule his myopia.

Then there is Thierry Henry. Now here was a scandal that did indeed traduce his sport. Regardless, plenty of people found an unholy relish in watching the latte drinkers' pin-up boy fall from grace.

How few ever hesitate to pick up the first stone. It is, of course, one and the same currency: celebrity adulation, and Schadenfreude. Two sides of the same, worthless coin. Perhaps we need this sort of revulsion – not with Woods himself, but with our collective prurience and hypocrisy – to remind ourselves why we watch these men.

For it so happens that this public humiliation, for Woods, will itself heighten the pressures central to all the most rarefied zones of sporting endeavour. And it is the ability to cope mentally that makes us salute, say, Steve Waugh over Graeme Hick.

Consider Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who came on to replace the ageing Henry (humiliated by Pepe with a head start - hurrah!) when Barcelona played Real Madrid last Sunday. Everyone knows the story with Ibra. He can do things nobody else can do, so long as it doesn't matter. In the big games, however, he will always flunk it.

Well, there are few bigger than this. And within five minutes he cut an inch-perfect volley past Iker Casillas to settle the match. (Though mad professors please note Barcelona owed their victory, not to their angels, but to their back four.) It was a goal of nerveless precision.

This might not suit us. We might almost feel a bit let down. But there it is. Next thing we'll be told that he's a faithful husband, as well, and a good dad. How very sickening.

Head rules heart for risk-averse Johnson

Rob Andrew is worried fans might start voting with their feet if the laws governing the breakdown aren't changed. At the moment, he reckons, you are nearly better off without the ball than with it.

But England fans at the moment have rather more powerful reasons to hesitate before forking out 70 quid for a ticket. For nobody seems more uncomfortably aware of Martin Johnson's inexperience as a coach than Martin Johnson. That is why he dreads risk, in selection or strategy, and why he stifles the few adventurous players as have been permitted into the fold.

Now we know why Ben Foden was sent back to Northampton, despite a chronic vacancy at full-back. Foden is always in a hurry to get his hands on the ball, and do things with it. And everyone knows that nowadays you are far better off without the bloody thing. Just ask the All Blacks, who ran in five tries in Marseilles last week without once touching the ball.