The dangers of loving a sport unconditionally

The conclusion is that a sport's intrinsic qualities will always overcome its deficiencies
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The Independent Online

In the days following Manchester United's elimination from the European Champions' League last week, and with three Leicester City players accused of sexual assault still detained in a Spanish jail following a club trip to the La Manga resort, a joke circulated on the internet. What is the difference between Manchester United and Leicester? Answer: at least some of the Leicester team are still in Europe.

In the days following Manchester United's elimination from the European Champions' League last week, and with three Leicester City players accused of sexual assault still detained in a Spanish jail following a club trip to the La Manga resort, a joke circulated on the internet. What is the difference between Manchester United and Leicester? Answer: at least some of the Leicester team are still in Europe.

It was a feeble joke - possibly not worthy of the loud chuckle it elicited from me - but also a telling one, linking the on-field performances of some footballers with the off-field behaviour of others. There was a time when the two were considered separately, even when the same man was involved. One Paul Gascoigne smacked his wife around; the other scored wondrous goals.

But now, even as a purely sporting spectacle, football is diminished by the alcohol-fuelled (the fuel is still usually alcohol) antics of well-known players. I know a few people who have stopped watching, not because the football is declining in quality (in Arsenal's case, it has never been better), but because they can no longer tolerate a sport that cheerfully pays young men upwards of £25,000 a week and then seems shocked when they spend it irresponsibly.

This is not to prejudge the La Manga Three. Whether or not they are guilty as charged, however, they have unwittingly inflamed the notion that Premiership footballers are overpaid, over-sexed, and, in most city-centre nightclubs, not to mention bars on the Costa del Sol, just over there.

Such a notion is ill informed. Most Premiership footballers are law-abiding citizens and dedicated professionals. Moreover, when young men hit the booze and start behaving badly, the common denominator is not football but testosterone. What I find most depressing about the Leicester City imbroglio is that it has enabled those who habitually knock football to knock it even harder. The game is playing into the hands of its serial detractors.

Thankfully, for all the inevitability that before long there will be another sex, drink or drugs scandal involving a Premiership player, football remains a blissfully unpredictable phenomenon. On Sunday, Manchester United played Manchester City. The City fans feared that after United's exit from Europe their out-of-form team would cop the backlash. Instead, City hammered United 4-1.

On the same day, England's Test cricketers crushed the West Indies by 10 wickets in Kingston, Jamaica. Here, too, is a sport which has been racked with problems. Admittedly, no famous cricketers have recently been accused of rape, but several have been accused, and found guilty, of corruption. Nobody doubts that top cricket matches have been rigged for betting purposes, but nor does anyone think for a second there was anything dodgy about England's marvellous win in Jamaica, in which, after a first innings that suggested two teams of comparable ability, the English bowlers and in particular Steve Harmison reduced the West Indies to their lowest ever Test match total of 47.

The conclusion, in cricket as in football, is that the intrinsic qualities of sport (unpredictability, excitement, vigour, beauty) will always overcome its deficiencies (the irresponsibility of players, the incompetence of administrators, the misbehaviour of fans).

Speaking of fans, in Karachi on Sunday an extraordinary one-day cricket match took place between India and Pakistan. It was extraordinary enough for the cricket alone, with Pakistan's batsmen needing a six off the last ball to overhaul India's huge total of 349, but it was even more notable for the unprecedented generosity shown by the Pakistani supporters to the victorious Indian team, who were given a rousing ovation as they left the field. India had not played in Pakistan since 1989. In that time, hostility between the two countries has almost erupted into full-scale war. Their reconciliation may yet be symbolised by a bat and a ball.

All of which takes us a long way from the La Manga Three, and yet, maybe, not such a long way. A sporting victory for India over Pakistan, in Pakistan, would once have been considered certain to provoke riots. It didn't. So if the behavioural patterns of tens of millions of passionate cricket-lovers on the sub-continent can change, it must be possible to take a bunch of English footballers to the Costa del Sol without any of them letting off fire extinguishers or ending up behind bars.

Meanwhile, today sees the start of the three-day Cheltenham Festival of National Hunt racing. Horse-racing has also been making headlines for the wrong reasons. The champion flat-race jockey, Kieren Fallon, has been accused of throwing a race. So has a National Hunt jockey, Sean Fox. Yet thousands of punters will descend on Cheltenham this week, their enthusiasm in no way dampened by such controversies. That is precisely the danger. Those of us who love sport mostly do so unconditionally, whether its so-called luminaries behave properly or not.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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