Football, a game I once loved, is out of control

Other sports are not squeaky clearn, but the governing bodies have tried to act
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The Independent Online

This sporting year, from a British viewpoint, has been as good as any I can remember. Just as we were looking back and congratulating our Olympians and Paralympians, plus an outstanding tennis player and golfer, for their prowess, along come our rugby players (who beat the All Blacks at Twickenham) and cricketers (who won a Test series in India) to claim their share of the glory.

Chelsea may have won the European Cup, and shown some staunchly British virtues in doing so, but football has no rightful place on the national pantheon of sporting excellence. Indeed, the success of true sports people such as Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams and Bradley Wiggins has highlighted the contrasting shortcomings of a sport that I once loved.

Football would have been a poisonous presence on the rostrum, such has been its abominable misbehavour. Ugly as it has become, Gary Lineker still briefly referred to it as "the beautiful game". Was his tongue in his cheek? Maybe it was still beautiful when he and his contemporaries laced up their boots, but it has become scarred.

I am old enough to remember when enjoying the game's romance was not inimical to success. The team I mainly watched, West Ham, provided the backbone of the side that won the World Cup. Where is that spirit now? Professionalisation, and the attitudes that go with it, didn't have to ruin football, but it did. Recent incidents remind us just how toxic and tawdry it is, despoiled by racism, thuggery and arrogance.

So many players have become rich, and infamous, with no respect for the game's laws, and an attitude off the pitch that, suggests they consider themselves immune to the laws of the land. Okay, we may have travelled far from the mass hooliganism of the Seventies and Eighties, but the malady lingers.

Now we have vile taunts about Munich, Hillsborough and the Holocaust almost every weekend, with a return to pitch invasion by nutters and scenes like that in Manchester this month when Rio Ferdinand left the pitch with his eyebrow streaming blood after he was hit by a coin thrown from the crowd. Who says there's a recession when Neanderthals happily throw away money?

Sadly, football attracts society's dregs. Those who applaud the misdemeanours of players and fellow fans. And those misdemeanours are largely received with a shrug, a slap on the wrist and mealy-mouthed denounciation by the game's so-called guardians.

The Premier League has been seduced by Murdoch money and celebrity culture, sacrificing both pride and principle and turning a blind eye to ills within a game for which it, and the Football Association, share a duty of care. Both seem happy to doff caps to Roman Abramovich, as football spins out of their control – so long as the financial bottom line is healthy.

Football has become a game that fosters the worst excesses of humankind.

Other sports are not squeaky clean: cricket has a crime sheet full of betting scandals and rigged matches; there was the fake blood capsule in rugby; a plethora of pulled horses in racing; and, as for cycling, it has the principal dope pedaller Lance Armstrong. Endemic doping continues to besmirch athletics too.

But at least the governing bodies have tried to do something even if, in cycling's case, the blind eye had to be prised open. Football remains stubbornly myopic. The fact that it remains the only game where fans must be segregated tells us something, but those in charge say it's all about passion. Rubbish. It is unadulterated tribalism which too often spills over into violence and verbal abuse.

Now I fear football has become so "up itself", so consumed by greed and global marketing, that it smugly harbours the incorrigible, the persistent cheats, and ignores things that would not be tolerated in any other sport. Meanwhile, it fails to see the dismay among those who, like me, once cherished the game.

What we have witnessed since this grossly disfigured season began indicates that football has learnt nothing from the Olympics, although it vowed that it would.

Why is there this apparent reluctance to inject the sort of decency, dignity and real sportsmanship that epitomised London 2012? Is it because those in charge lack the will, or the bottle?

Sports minister Hugh Robertson was absolutely right to say football was the worst governed of all sports. His patience is wearing thin, Government intervention may be the only way. What the game needs, but is unlikely to get, is an independent NFL-style Commissioner (Lord Coe would be my choice), who knows that the one way to stop the rot is to restore referees' authority, deduct points in double figures, start closing grounds for several games and ban consistent offenders, both players and managers, for months. Drastic? Of course, but football is in need of major surgery, not the odd bit of casually applied sticking plaster accompanied by placebos and platitudes.

If anything requires a Leveson-style inquiry with new regulations backed by law it's football. Please, somebody blow the whistle.