New value on a face of professionalism

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The Independent Online
During the furore that followed Robbie Fowler's anguished outbreak of honesty when Liverpool were awarded that decisive penalty against Arsenal last week, it was difficult to maintain a firm grip on objectivity. As a Liverpool fan, I found myself yelling for him to be booked for dissent. Fortunately, there was so much pandemonium in the pub my beseechment to the big screen went unnoticed and the mask of impartiality was soon back in place.

The aftermath has been even more fascinating than the initial reactions. Countless sporting souls have been not so much searched as ransacked in an attempt to decide whether Fowler's flash of altruism constituted a victory for the virtues of fair play or a betrayal of his team's best interests.

Sport is rarely more enjoyable than when it engages the hordes in a bout of introspection and the week provided intriguing progress in our ceaseless pursuit of the true meaning of professionalism in sport.

The word professional does not always carry in sport the same high value as in other walks of life. This may have its roots in bygone days when to play sport for money was regarded as a grubby motivation in comparison with the sheer love of the game that inspired the amateurs. Until recently, professionalism was even an illegal activity in many sports, not least the Olympic Games and rugby union.

Even when those earning a living from sport aren't regarded with deep suspicion they tend to be treated in a patronising way. Players are praised as being model professionals if they've never been late for training, never asked for a raise or demanded a transfer, never been booked and certainly never challenged a Tory MP for the occupancy of a tabloid page. In this context, the term professional does not equate with brilliant; more like a faithful old retainer.

There is also the begrudging use of the word when you want to convey faint praise, such as: "They did a professional job." Thereby is it implied that a boring piece of work has been completed to the satisfaction of no one apart from the unimaginative journeymen who carried it out. It is a small step from that attitude to a general regard of a professional as one who approaches his game in a cold-eyed, super-efficient risk- free manner and who would not flinch from cutting his grannie's throat to win a corner. There are plenty who would answer to that description.

The image I prefer to see represented in professional sportsmen is akin to the Samurai: the Japanese warriors dedicated to the perfection of their art, highly trained and fully prepared for any engagement and bound by a strict code of honour. Top golfers probably come nearer to that measure than most football players. Would a Samurai, or a golfer, have turned down that penalty? I doubt it.

One of the most interesting reactions to the Fowler incident came from the England manager, Glenn Hoddle, who commended the player's honesty but added: "You could argue if it was professional."

Hoddle is the last manager to deserve being accused of belonging to the win-at-all-costs school, but he had the courage to mouth the thoughts of many in questioning the merits of Fowler's protests. It wasn't as if the Liverpool striker had done anything wrong. He hadn't taken a dive, he hadn't committed a foul or punched the ball in the net Maradona-style. So it wasn't a confession he was making; he was volunteering the fact that Seaman's arm hadn't caught his leg as he jumped over the Arsenal goalkeeper's prone body.

Revealing as the information was, the referee Gerald Ashby was right to ignore it. It certainly would have looked to him, as it did to television viewers, to be a clear penalty. Whether or not he touched Fowler's leg, there were very few, if any, possible outcomes arising from Seaman's flailing dive other than for Fowler to make a sudden attempt on the Highbury hurdling record and take a tumble as a result.

For all his good intentions Fowler merely confused the issue, put the referee in the pillory and caused an outcry that led to one newspaper screaming out the ludicrous opinion that the decision had cost Arsenal pounds 11m of potential European Cup earnings. The need for professionalism is not confined to the football pitch.

IF there is any consolation to be drawn by Middlesbrough from their failure last week to retrieve the three points deducted by the Football Association when they failed to fulfil their Premiership fixture at Blackburn Rovers in December, it is that when they eventually play the match next month they might win and the three points they would thus gain would put them back where they started.

No such luck for Blackburn who would be three points to the worse through no fault of their own. It is all very confusing but it indicates a weakness in the policy of "fining" clubs points without awarding them to the other team concerned.

The three-point punishment was inflicted when Middlesbrough decided, without permission, to call off the game because they were severely weakened by injury and illness. They could have fielded a team but it would have contained several young and inexperienced players and, presumably, Blackburn would have had little trouble in winning.

However, Blackburn were not awarded the points despite the fact they were, so to speak, the injured party and the match was re-arranged. It is quite possible that when the match is eventually played Blackburn will themselves be hit by injuries and be forced to field a weakened side. In the meantime, Middlesbrough have considerably improved since December and a win for them is by no means out of the question.

Which means that Middlesbrough will have the same number of points as if they had played and lost the original match - and Blackburn will have three points fewer. It's Blackburn who should have hired George Carman QC.

ROBBIE FOWLER deserves the postscript to a confusing week. On Thursday, he learned that he had received a pounds 900 fine and a reprimand from Uefa for lifting his shirt to reveal a slogan in support of the striking Merseyside dockers printed on his vest during the recent Cup-Winners' Cup quarter- final against SK Brann at Anfield.

News of the punishment came a day after receiving a fax from world soccer's governing body, Fifa, congratulating him for his action at Arsenal and "helping to maintain the integrity of the game".

It seems you can carry slogans boosting any number of commercial causes for any amount of money but it is against the rules to support, for no payment, what you might consider a worthy cause but which Uefa deem to be "a manifestation of a non-sporting nature".

Still, as a result of the fine, the dockers received a double dose of publicity for their cause. Even at a cost of pounds 900, Fowler might consider that to be a bargain All in all, the lad who didn't possess a very good reputation beforehand had a very good week in character-assessment terms.

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