'I wish to congratulate you for your act of sportsmanship'

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The Independent Online
Less than a week after incurring the displeasure of Uefa, football's European governing body, for supporting the sacked Liverpool dockers, Robbie Fowler was yesterday canonised by Fifa for his sportsmanship.

Sepp Blatter, the executive secretary of the game's world governing body, thanked Fowler by fax for "helping maintain the integrity of the game".

Fowler himself was keeping quiet yesterday, which may have been a good idea given the bizarre nature of some of the tributes. One tabloid newspaper tried to present him with an old and uninscribed cup for being the sportsman of the decade.

Television pictures suggested Fowler had told Gerald Ashby that he had fallen after the referee had awarded a penalty following his tumble over David Seaman at Highbury on Monday night.

"Robbie felt the need to point out that Seaman hadn't touched him," Stan Collymore, his Liverpool strike partner, said yesterday. "A lot of players would have just left it at the referee's whistle."

"I can't say what the team's reaction would have been if [the penalty had been revoked] and the game had ended 1-1," David James, the Liverpool goalkeeper, said. "Different people in the squad would react in different ways. More generally I am not in favour of bringing in television for those decisions. The human element is one of the reasons people like football." Both players had initially thought Fowler was trying to save Seaman from being sent off.

Blatter had no doubts. His fax read: "I wish to congratulate you for the act of sportsmanship which you demonstrated. Visibly trying to persuade the referee from awarding a penalty in your favour did you great honour. It is the kind of gesture which helps maintain the integrity of the game.

"At a time when there is a disturbing trend towards cheating, and when Fifa is appealing to players (especially in the professional game) to help referees rather than deceive them, your example at this vital moment in such an important match should set an example to younger players and fellow professionals alike. Thank you for helping Fifa in its efforts for the good of the game."

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the players' union, the PFA, said: "I'd like any youngster coming into the game to use him as a role model for what he did. Not only was he clearly admitting he did not deserve a penalty, but also showing his concern as a fellow professional might be sent off. I know Robbie has a reputation for being a little bit of a scallywag on occasions, but nobody could fault him here."

The beaten manager was just as generous about Fowler, but not about Ashby. "It was a great gesture by Fowler and I would like to give him an award for fair play," said Arsene Wenger, who then added: "But if he got that I would also have to give the referee an award for stupidity."

Glenn Hoddle, while praising Fowler, gave the impression he would not be too pleased if he did it in an England shirt. "It was an honest reaction - you could argue if it was professional," he said.

Referees were divided. David Elleray pointed out that even if Seaman had not made contact, the "recklessness" of his challenge probably brought Fowler down.

Steven Lodge, the FA Cup final referee, said: "The first time I saw it I thought it was a harsh decision. Then I saw it again and thought he had clipped the back leg. Other referees have seen it the other way. It shows what a hard decision it was. You can see why he gave it."