One of the advantages that football was always said to have over cricket was that the games only lasted 90 minutes. Soon, though, Fifa and Uefa will acknowledge what the rest of us have known for ages: that the surrounding war of words is actually a constituent part of the match. So it can reasonably be claimed that a particularly significant fixture, such as Chelsea vs Barcelona last week, actually goes on for eight weeks, with another week added for penalties. And all this chat seems to come down to one thing: cheating. Well, there's closet homosexuality as well, but that's just rumour. Cheating we can all see every time we turn on the telly. So little can you now trust in the game that you even begin to wonder whether Gary Lineker's hair is really that grey.
Comic fouls are merely a part of it, although an increasingly entertaining part. Having 53 cameras around the ground for even the humblest mid-table "clash", super slo-mo recording each grimace at 10,000 frames a second, we can now appreciate the artistry of football's great foulees. You can only imagine the shin-crunchers of the 1970s, the Norman Hunters and Chopper Harrises, sitting at home shaking their heads miserably, wishing their own fouls had been filmed in such loving detail.
But as well as the straightforward cheating - thuggish defenders, overacting Argentinian crybaby forwards - there's also a sort of metacheating going on, a messing with our minds, as happened last week. A manager (in this case, Chelsea's José Mourinho) accused a crybaby forward (Barcelona's Lionel Messi) of cheating, and completely disregarded the fact that his own defender (Asier del Horno) probably deserved to be sent off. He thus showed a politician's disregard for the truth, simultaneously playing to the gallery and treating disinterested observers as though they were idiots. Problem is, after watching football for a while, you get used to being treated like an idiot.
Consider the recent outbreak of bungs inquiries. Every evening for a couple of weeks, a different set of men in blazers sat facing the cameras, looking concerned and determined, as though it had never occurred to them before that the sport they love was as riven by corruption as Imperial Rome. Football had been treating them as idiots for all these years. And lo! Idiots they had become.
And still we talk of people "bringing the game into disrepute". I love this phrase, the way it assumes that the game currently resides in an area of repute, like Kensington. Because only the truly deluded would associate football with fair play and even-handedness. My favourite is the way everyone on the pitch puts their hand up to claim every foul or throw-in, whether or not it's theirs to claim. Is that cheating, or metacheating? Or just daft?
Next week, the second leg. The football may not be much to write home about, but the chat and the cheating should be out of the top drawer.
- More about:
- Chelsea F.c.
- Fc Barcelona
- Gary Lineker
- UEFA Champions League