Back in the 1980s the BBC Match of the Day opening credits featured a clip of Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas prostrate on the pitch. He raises himself up and gives a saucy wink to the camera. The implication was that he had ‘won’ a penalty and was cheekily acknowledging his successful deceit.
Contrast with Raheem Sterling on Wednesday night. It’s generally accepted that if there was any contact between the England striker and the body parts of various Danish defenders swarming around him, it was minimal, and not enough to send him tumbling to the ground. And certainly not worth a crucial penalty. But Sterling seemed oblivious, no guilty look, no sly wink to anyone, not even a furtive glance at the third official. And when the ball went in, there was nothing but the purest triumphant joy.
Similarly, Harry Kane, tremendous striker no doubt, but a player who has acquired something of a reputation for what FIFA tactfully describes as ‘simulation’ but is more commonly known as ‘diving’. He has never seemed remotely concerned by the accusations.
Clearly, football is a rough, tough, cynical game, and professionalism/gamesmanship/cheating – call it what you will – has a long history. But what does seem to have changed with this England team is the players’ perception of such tactics. Mickey Thomas clearly didn’t care too much about how his penalty was won, but at least he appears to have been conscious that some might have regarded it as a bit naughty. Sterling, Kane, and so many others, appear simply unaware that moral judgements can be applied to their on-field tactics.
A perhaps more disturbing example of how attitudes have changed in the Southgate era occurred during the 2018 World Cup. England met Belgium in the final group game, with both sides having already qualified for the next round. The only issue at stake was who would finish first and second in the group. Perversely, first place meant a significantly tougher route to the final, with Brazil and France looming; while second place saw the relatively weak Colombia and Sweden as likely opponents.
What followed was one of the strangest games in England’s World Cup history. The firing-on-all-cylinders Kane was rested, along with seven others. The main concern, of both sides, seemed to be not to pick up injuries or cautions. The teams were booed at half time and the referee added barely a single second at the end of the weird encounter.
Did England even try to win? The second-string team selection suggested that if they did, they didn’t try terribly hard; and the air of satisfaction at the end (Belgium won 1-0 with a strange goal) raises suspicions further. ‘Streetwise England…. lose but win?’ wondered the Daily Telegraph.
Not much has been written or said about this fixture since. It seems to have been deposited into the memory hole of the official history of Southgate’s England. But it was a troubling, and somewhat telling, encounter.
Am I being a killjoy here? Does this matter? Does anyone care? The evidence suggests the players do not; or, if they do, they keep very quiet about it. But how about the fans? The understandable euphoria at the end of Wednesday’s game overwhelmed the consciences of many. But, as the emotions settled and the footage has been reviewed, there have been signs of a growing unease, at least amongst a portion of the support.
A process of rationalisation has begun, starting with a scramble for convenient euphemisms and mitigation. The penalty was not incorrectly awarded, but ‘soft’. Kane should have had one earlier. The Danes were hacking away at England players all game, and their free-kick goal shouldn’t have been allowed to stand. And anyway what about Frank Lampard in 2010, or Maradona in 1986? England were due a bit of a break. And so on.
But none of it really washes. Tempting as it is to cast aside the nagging moral qualms and revel in a gutsy England win, surrendering to the juicy prospect of a historic final against Italy on Sunday, I can’t quite do it.
Sterling dived. That doesn’t put him beyond the pale. He needn't be cast out of polite society. But he dived. Maybe he was barely aware of it himself. Maybe, under intense pressure, with the adrenaline swirling, and legs and arms thrashing around him, he even convinced himself that he had been fouled. It’s not a capital offence. But let's at least be honest about what happened.
There is much to admire about Southgate’s England, yet the fact that not a single member of the team – a team so insistent on displaying its concern for racial justice (taking the knee) and social justice (Pride armbands) – seems to have recognised and acknowledged this lapse of sporting justice, even with a sly wink, is just a little troubling.