Football hero in honesty shock

David Lister
Wednesday 26 March 1997 00:02
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It was a seminal moment in British sport. Maybe it was a seminal moment for British society.

On Monday night Robbie Fowler, the Liverpool and England striker, was awarded a penalty in a top-of-the-table clash against Arsenal after being apparently tripped by the Arsenal and England goalkeeper David Seaman. Then something happened, something so bizarre it has no precedent in the modern game.

Fowler was honest. He turned to the ref (and to the TV cameras) and mouthed "No, no", waving dismissively that it was not really a penalty. He had simply tripped. Seaman had not touched him.

I was reminded of Tom Stoppard's comedy Professional Foul, which mixes football and philosophy. A philosopher asks a professional footballer why players from opposing teams always appeal for a throw-in when "every bloody time" the player who actually kicked it out of play knows that he did. What are the moral and philosophical boundaries between loutishness, dishonesty and simply wanting to gain an advantage for your team?

With penalties, soccer etiquette - or lack of it - has been even clearer. You always contest a penalty award against you. You never dispute a penalty award in your favour. Cricketers may walk but footballers never, never talk. Yet Fowler did, or tried to. And then the action became surreal enough to give philosophers an entire seminar. So unprecedented was Fowler's honesty that no one knew how to handle it.

The ref who had blown his whistle and pointed to the spot was expecting the usual clamour of protests from the Arsenal players. But a protest from the player about to take the penalty? He hadn't been taught about that at referee school. The next day he said simply that he hadn't heard Fowler say anything. "He obviously didn't hear him waving then," noted one commentator acerbically. For Fowler's gesticulating itself spoke volumes.

The ref's temporary deafness and blindness was not shared by Sky's commentary team. "He surely can't be telling the ref he wasn't fouled," said the commentator incredulously. The expert match analyst, ex-Scotland international Andy Gray, urged: "Fowler's manager should give him a clip round the ear," justifying this philosophical treatise by adding that Fowler's gesture could have cost his side the Premiership title. So much for the regular solemn statements by television commentators that footballers must set a better example to schoolchildren.

On the field the drama was coming to its climax with Fowler's own catharsis. His honesty was to be put to the ultimate test. The man who had tried to disclaim the penalty was, the fates had decreed, Liverpool's penalty taker. He kicked the ball "sheepishly", as The Independent's match report put it, and it was saved by Seaman. But the fates are not so easily satisfied. The ball bounced off Seaman's torso to an oncoming Liverpool colleague, Jason McAteer, one of life's logical positivists, who fired it unsheepishly into the goal.

Soccer is now firmly placed alongside politics in the twilight area of morality where to be open and honest is seen only as poor tactics. Here fortuitously (to use a word beloved of soccer commentators) in the middle of an election campaign was a chance for sport to preach to politicians, to show that there are values beyond gaining a temporary advantage. That a code of private morality must remain constant in the public arena, even in gladiatorial arenas like Westminster or Highbury. Our heroes can tell the truth, our role models can to themselves be true. For one brief moment it seemed a possibility.

No longer. But salute Robbie Fowler for introducing a moment's honesty into soccer, even if it did confound his peers. Just one question though: Robbie, if you knew it shouldn't have been a penalty, why didn't you simply fire the kick wide?

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