This article appeared in The Herald
Following Eduardo da Silva’s recent display of bare-faced simulation against Celtic last month, a friend told me he was thinking of giving up being a football supporter.
A Celtic fan based in England, he was, in fact, in the habit of attending the Emirates with some Arsenal-supporting friends and, even before their Croatian superstar’s coup de theatre, he’d been grooming a justifiable chip on his shoulder over the disparity in the size of the jackpot on offer contingent on which of the sides won that tie. Had Celtic got to the Champions League group stages they stood to rake in £12m if they were lucky; Arsenal will rack up at least £35m. The answer, said my friend sorrowfully, was to go and watch cricket instead. I can only imagine he hadn’t heard about all the sledging, ball-tampering and match-fixing.
The level playing-field we like to fantasise about in sport is akin to a brownfield site in a run-down part of town that’s about to be redeveloped as a call centre. The Corinthian spirit may yet exist but it’s a shy, shrivelled, elfin thing; it tends to stay at home, embarrassed by all the cheating it sees on television. Perhaps it was ever thus, but what is undeniable is that, as sport has become more saturated with finance, as its elites have grown more dominant and as the rewards on offer at the sharp end have grown, so the temptation to cheat has grown commensurately.
As the Renault scandal broke these past few days, the conclusion was unavoidable that the only reason it did so was because the whistleblower himself, Nelson Piquet Jr, wanted revenge after being given the heave-ho. As a result of Piquet deliberately crashing, his team-mate at the time, Fernando Alonso, was able to win a race he would otherwise have not. Under normal circumstances these things do not emerge at all, which is why when egregious cases do come to light, punishment from the relevant authorities must be swift, decisive and retributive.
Over the last decade or so, the scale of doping in cycling has emerged bit by bit. The signs now are that the sport has started to reform itself but so widespread and intractable was that form of cheating that the tipping point only really came when the whole thing threatened to become a PR bloodbath. Other sports may be yet to face such self-immolation; other forms of cheating we may not consider to be so heinous. There are degrees of cheating, but to what extent, if any, does the absence of prima facie pre-meditation mitigate against the seriousness of the crime?
Was the Spygate affair in NFL, where the New England Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets’ coaching signals – the sporting equivalent of espionage – a more reprehensible instance of foul play than Diego Maradona scoring past Peter Shilton with his hand? Was the “bloodgate” scandal in rugby less intolerable than the “Calciopoli” match-fixing debacle in Italian football?
What is certain is that, the more cheating occurs and the more it is plain to see – whether because whistle-blowing has become more profitable or because televisual evidence is more dependable than ever – the less we are inclined to trust sportsmen and women, umpires, coaches, clubs or directors of sport. The court of public opinion is a powerful chamber and if people perceive that they are being duped they will make themselves heard.
Instances of the opposite of cheating – magnanimous gestures of fair play such as Paolo Di Canio’s when, playing for West Ham United, he opted to catch the ball rather than score past the injured, and grounded, Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard – are so rare that we cherish the memory of them.
Equally, cheats go unforgiven. Eduardo’s reputation will remain tarred. When Aberdeen play Rangers, their supporters will remind Kyle Lafferty of how he contrived to have Charlie Mulgrew sent off at Ibrox last season.
When people cheat in exams or in relationships, or when governments defraud their citizens or banks their customers, our sense of fair play demands a reckoning. We may hope for one but we do not expect it.
Sport is different: it’s neither love nor war; it’s not supposed to be about the dictates of the market or winning at all costs. If it takes retribution, retribution, retribution to preserve what sport should be about, then so be it.