I still love the beautiful game, but I struggle to defend it when fans of other sports poke fun at football. I'm sure you've heard it before - "what's with all this rolling around on the floor like he's been shot" or "they're not soft like those footballers you see on the telly".
Remember Rivaldo having the ball kicked at his thigh by a Turkish opponent in the 2002 World Cup as he was about to take a corner kick? By falling over holding his face in an attempt to make what was only a little petulance look like a violent assault, he managed to get the guy sent off. I just can't defend behaviour like that - it gives those who like to have a pop at the game far too much ammunition.
Andy Carroll's dive against Newcastle made fools of us all. I want to win as much as anyone does, and I've learned over the years that a little gamesmanship can help you get the result you want. I don't think there's anything wrong with appealing for a decision from the referee in an attempt to influence his decision, or taking the ball into the corner to waste time if you are looking to defend a one goal lead in injury time. I do think falling over like Carroll did is entirely wrong. There was at least six inches of daylight between Carroll and Tim Krul when the contact was supposed to occur - the boy should be embarrassed.
The never ending choice of football on the television, and perhaps more importantly, the never ending analysis of that football, has led to a generation of footballers and football fans who seem to think that this sort of behaviour is just part of the modern game. I went to watch a youth cup final a couple of weeks ago and I was amazed at what I saw. The most talented players on the pitch were too busy trying to imitate the antics of the players they see on television every week to think about helping their team win the game.
I couldn't help think that the coaches must have, on some level, felt that such behaviour was acceptable - there was after all no sign of them trying to discourage it. One of the star players was sent off after badgering the referee and using some pretty blue language for long enough to warrant the receipt of a red card. Instead of giving the little shit a dressing down, the coaches seemed to want to remonstrate with the referee for taking that course of action. If youth coaches take this sort of approach, its pretty clear what the future holds.
I'm probably coming across whiter than white on all this - I can assure you I'm not. I understand what's on the line at Premiership level with all the money involved in the game, or even what reaching a big cup final can mean to a group of young players. I've used foul language in the heat of the moment and I've committed fouls in a rather cynical fashion where I've "taken a yellow" for the team because I've felt the attacking threat at that moment could have led to us conceding a goal. As a player and as a coach I want to win at almost any cost.
There is a line - I don't even know where it is, but someone needs to identify it and punish people who cross it. Rivaldo's disgusting behaviour should have led to a long ban for a player who, at the time, was one of the world's best. The measly fine he had to pay didn't do nearly enough to underline just how damaging such behaviour was and still is to the game, particularly as it came at the biggest footballing event in the world with billions watching on television. Judgement on borderline decisions will at times fail to uncover the truth. A player who is really good at conning referees is hard to stop. When a tricky attacker comes together with a cumbersome centre half in the area, its hard to spot a proactive attempt to get the legs tangled and often looks like a clumsy challenge by the defender (yes, I was a centre half and yes, I'm still bitter about the odd occasions when this happened to poor little innocent me). So its not always easy to spot, penalise and punish if the player is adept at disguising his attempt to cheat.
But if television has something to answer for because it helped create this culture, it can surely be used in a positive way to highlight clear examples of players cheating and the evidence then used to punish the offending player, and maybe his team while we're at it so that this behaviour is cut out of the game quickly.
The honesty and integrity I see in both codes of rugby and the respect their referees are afforded is admirable. I'm not about to convert to egg chasing, watching or worshipping, but I will say this. The values of football have been compromised to such an extent that if I was given a choice between the two sports to use as a means of helping my son learn about life through sport, I wouldn't be holding the beautiful game up as the example to follow.
There is one great white hope for the beautiful game though, in the form of the little fella widely acknowledged as the world's best player at present - Lionel Messi. As he stated in his excellent recent interview with Sky Sports' John Fendley, " when I can keep running, I try to do that". No elaborate dives or prima donna behaviour on show from this little master.
Thankfully, it appears that Messi is the role model of choice for the next generation of British footballers, and not Andy Carroll.
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