Tomorrow is the start of the Tour de France. For the next three weeks, media coverage will comprise a mix of adulation and condemnation. Adulation for the efforts of men who propel themselves over 3,000km of mountains, cobbles and windy flat roads in the world’s most demanding sporting event. And condemnation because all the while, people will question the validity of their performances. Are they doped? To what extent does success in cycling equate with success at avoiding doping controls?
And here on The Science of Sport, we’ve been as harsh as anyone on the sport of cycling. And with reason. Cycling has a problem of its own making, and its refusal to address its own problem eventually led to media and sponsors threatening withdrawal. And only then, amid much kicking and screaming, did cycling begin to turn a corner.
Cycling is still burdened by its doping past, make no mistake, and the legacy of its “great” champions means it will forever be questioned – again, this is a deserved reputation. But it has certainly improved – the efforts of the biological passport and the invasive testing and the sponsors have gradually begun to control the extent of doping in the peloton. As we will see over the next few weeks, the power outputs produced by the winners are coming down. They are now “physiologically believable”. And for this, anti-doping efforts deserve some credit.
However, today, I felt the need to comment on another sport, which is, without doubt, more corrupt, more fraudulent and more immoral than cycling. That sport is football – a sport that is completely without morals and an ethical code.
This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time. Ever since the World Cup began, I’ve commented on the irritation I feel at the diving, the play-acting, the cheating and the open dishonesty of players. The referees are part of a ‘script’ that rewards this cheating, and the game is poorer for it. And then just the other day I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, and he was sharing that he finds it impossible to enjoy watching football, because the fraud leaves such a bad taste in the mouth. And as the tournament has progressed, I find myself more and more in agreement.
A rugby paradigm applied to football – it just doesn’t work
My friend Colin comes from a rugby background, a sport which still has values. And I think it’s important for people reading this to appreciate that if you are from a rugby background, the notion that a player will charge up to a referee and insist on a yellow or red card is completely foreign. In fact, the notion that players will even challenge a refereeing decision is unheard of in rugby.
A player who goes down and exaggerates the extent of an injury to gain an advantage would be ridiculed in rugby. In football, he is celebrated. In football, referees command absolutely no respect from players. They are tools to be deceived rather than officials to be respected. And before you point out that basketball shares this trait, do yourself a favour and watch 58 games of World Cup Football, and you will see the difference.
Football is a disgraceful fiasco which rewards cheating, even glorifying it. And I enjoy watching football, but I cannot bring myself to respect it. The fervor of the fans, the passion, the colour and the celebration of skill make the sport worthy of watching. However, the shenanigans around cheating, and the glorification of that cheating, destroy my respect for the sport and its players.
From the first whistle to the last, players in football will seek to gain any advantage, no matter what level of cheating it requires. If two players are attempting to win the ball near the sideline, and it ricochets off one of them, then BOTH will appeal to the referee for a throw-in. One of them is lying, and thus cheating. Yet it happens 100% of the time. If a player is tackled, he will go to ground. Guaranteed. And the referee will react, also guaranteed. Today, in the Brazil v Netherlands match, Arjen Robben launched himself over the tackler with a clearance that the Olympic high-jump champion would be proud of. The referee bought it, awarded the free-kick, and the game changed from that point. This is not an isolated incident. Penalties are won by dives, players are sent off thanks to play-acting (just ask the Ivory Coast for their diabolical cheat against Brazil), and generally, matches resemble the WWE more than they do a competitive sports event.
The other day, I completed a survey being done by researchers in the UK, looking at public perceptions of cheating in football. The survey wanted to know my thoughts on whether the behaviour is cheating, and whether it is typical of the sport, or whether only certain teams do it. The answer is that it’s pervasive. Every team, and most players, will seek to gain any advantage by cheating.
What is the difference between football and cycling?
And the tragedy is that the media glorifies it, the fans idolize it, and in general, it is praised rather than condemned. Now, I can’t see the distinction between this cheating and what happens in cycling. I don’t see how diving to win a free-kick or get an opponent sent off is any different to manipulating the system to get away with doping. Yet it one sport – football – it is glorified, while in another, it dominates conversation. Quite why this is is beyond me.
Cycling is a sport that, for all its faults, still has some code of behaviour that makes it almost noble. If the race leaders crashes, the peloton waits, even if the Tour is at stake. The group agrees to slow down for feeding stations and bathrooms breaks. And sure, there are occasions where personalities affect the behaviour of the peloton (the Simeoni incident with Armstrong comes to mind as an ugly incident). But in general, cycling is a peculiar mix of cheating through doping and honesty and sportsmanship.
In football, there is no redeeming value. The most celebrated footballers of the current World Cup are its most celebrated primadonnas. Ronaldo dived more two in three times that he ran with the ball. Didier Drogba collapses like a matchstick man when he feels the breath of an opponent on him. Arjen Robben exerted himself more rolling on the floor than he did running. Yet these men are superstars. They should be jeered off the field in disgrace.
If I were a footballer (and I played a little in my time), I would be so irate at the first opponent to tries to cheat by diving that I’d be liable to lash out at him and get myself sent off. Yet it happens all the time and collectively, the sport embraces it. Referees must take much of the blame, but ultimately, FIFA are responsible for the decay of the sport into this realm of immorallity, cheating and dishonesty.
And frankly, it is shameful. It devalues the sport and its athletes. Yet FIFA is entirely complicit, because retroactive censure for these players could go a long way to stamping it out of the game. Most footballer followers are equally complacent – they shrug their shoulders and accept it. “It’s part of the game”. Referees buy it, all the time. FIFA does nothing to prevent it. And players exploit the system.
Ultimately, football may be the “beautiful game”, but given the degree of fraud and cheating that goes on in it, it is the immoral game. There is no beauty in what we have seen in the first 58 games of this World Cup, only the sour taste that remains when you’ve consumed something that should taste good, but for some reason, just tastes spoiled.