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Spectator sport

Spectator Sport: Ethical football

7 April 2012

1:00 PM

7 April 2012

1:00 PM

Funny business, footballers and morality. One moment they’re all taking part in mawkish self-congratulatory breast-beating, first over Gary Speed, now over poor Fabrice Muamba. The next, it’s back to childishness and sharp practice. Here’s Balotelli and Kolarov bickering over a free kick; there are Liverpool’s Carroll diving and swearing at his bench and Reina shaping up to headbutt, and then Newcastle’s untouched defender going down as if hit by a sniper.

How do professionals do this to each other week in, week out? It’s baffling and insulting. Kenny Dalglish’s reaction to the sort of behaviour that would make a reception class at an inner city primary feel ashamed was to say that it showed that his players don’t ‘enjoy losing’. That’s grown-up. The elegantly suited and corporate-minded gentlemen of the Fenway Sports Group might want a word soon.

Meanwhile the Times letters page is an arena where the price of meths, the fitness of the Queen and ovations for Maria Callas can all rub shoulders, so it’s no surprise that the paper hosted a fascinating mini-debate the other day on the state of modern rugby. The correspondents agreed it was pretty rubbish, what with not enough running, too much kicking, and endless wrestling at the breakdown.

All fair points, but let’s see at this weekend’s quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup whether top-class club rugby can break away from the inhibited patterns of the international game. I have my doubts. At the highest level the scrum has become a farce: there is far too much resetting for collapses, generally cynical ones. Give a free kick for scrum offences rather than a reset, and that would force packs to shove laterally not downwards or inwards.

Defences are now far better organised at the top level, largely due to the influence of rugby league coaching. At any play-the-ball in league, a line of enormous men are stretched out across the field, unbreachable like the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In union there are two more players, so the line is even harder to break. Shaun Edwards’s Wales were back in a line and facing within moments of a tackle being made. The same goes for England, where Andy Farrell has had a profound influence.

Tiger Woods has always struck me as a follower of the Gavin Henson school of good manners rather than the traditional Wykehamist model. And while the chilly golfing uberstar hasn’t been known to lob ice cubes at fellow passengers on an early morning flight as the waxed but fallen rugby star allegedly did, Woods has come in for some new flak from his driving coach Hank Haney. It seems that Woods gets up from meals before everyone’s finished — well, what teenager doesn’t? — but also played porn on the TV to irritate his room-mate, the born-again Christian Zach Johnson, at the 2006 Ryder Cup. He also called Ian Poulter a ‘dick’. Hard to argue with that. So if that’s all anyone’s got against Woods now, I wouldn’t want to bet against him for this week’s Masters.

Finally a shout-out for two broadcast gems. It beats me why the spoof documentary Twenty Twelve, about, well, London 2012, hasn’t found the cult status of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. It’s every bit as good. And this week Sue MacGregor’s series The Reunion brought together five athletes who had competed in the 1948 Games in London. Dorothy Tyler won a high jump silver, Dorothy Manley a silver in the 100m, Tommy Godwin was a grocery errand boy who won two cycling bronzes, John Parlett ran in the 800m, and Sir Roger Bannister was, well, Sir Roger Bannister. They spoke with charm, elegance, grace and of course modesty about the Games. It was all a world away from the tawdry universe of Balotelli, Carroll and their like.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

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