Stephen Fry and Lionel Messi fall foul of our sense of fair play

Messi is a master of the beautiful game, but his move also revealed him as a braggart, and I can’t help feeling a little the worse of him

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi

There may be something rather heartening in the fact that, even in this impersonal age, where the electronic holds sway over the human, we still seem to care care about those old-fashioned virtues of politeness and respect. Stephen Fry, Lionel Messi and Ronnie O’Sullivan – a trio of notables who are unlikely to have found themselves in the same sentence before – have all, over the past few days, been the subject of public opprobrium for behaviour that, if not downright rude, was certainly against the spirit of their respective callings.

Mr Fry, as host of the Baftas, referred to the woman who won the best costume designer award as a “bag lady”; Messi, the best footballer player on the planet, mocked the convention of his game with an outrageous piece of swagger; and O’Sullivan, a snooker champion of longstanding, eschewed a prize of £10,000, saying it wasn’t enough money for the scale of his achievement. All very different actions, in very different spheres, but they each engendered a similar public response: a sense that these great practitioners had overstepped the mark.

Many in the audience at the Baftas felt that Mr Fry was merely vocalising what they were thinking, and it’s true that Jenny Beavan, who won the Bafta for her work on the latest Mad Max film, did stand out from the expensively groomed crowd in black leather bomber jacket, creased trousers, and casual scarf. As the ceremony was recorded for TV, Mr Fry’s off-the-cuff remark as Ms Beavan left the stage – “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to the awards dressed like a bag lady” – could have been excised from the coverage, and we would be none the wiser. It can be assumed that the Bafta organisers didn’t see it as anything untoward.

I watched the programme, and thought at the time that it was a little off-colour, and certainly out of character. It later emerged that Mr Fry and Ms Beavan are friends, and she wasn’t discomfited by his jibe. But that wasn’t enough to halt the Twitter tide of abuse which engulfed Mr Fry. It doesn’t matter what the principal thinks, you’ve insulted us all, the British nation. And we’re going to insult you in return. Respect, you see, is not actually a two-way street.

Footballers are not known for their respectful attitude, but the game has rules and an ethos. Messi, instead of striking a penalty kick, passed it to a team-mate who scored himself.

It was audacious and inventive, but it belittled the goalkeeper and contravened the game’s spirit. Messi is a master of the beautiful game, but it also revealed him as a braggart, and I can’t help feeling a little the worse of him.

Ronnie O’Sullivan, meanwhile, was making a protest. A maximum break in snooker – potting 15 blacks, 15 reds and all the other colours in one visit to the table – is as rare as a hole in one in golf. On the brink of completing one in the Welsh Open, O’Sullivan purposely missed out because he didn’t think the prize of £10,000 was enough. The game’s hierarchy howled that he had been disrespectful, impolite. It’s just not, well... snooker. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re performing in the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, or at the Royal Opera House. Manners, it appears, still matter.

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