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Sport + bad rules = trouble

Henry pictured with super-size hands on a French website
Poking fun at Thierry Henry after his own handball incident


If a sport garlands itself with impenetrable rules, it is asking for the trouble these bring on and off the pitch, writes Clive James in his weekly column.

I haven't followed round-ball football seriously since the "professional foul" first got its name back in the 1980s. What was the point of trying to stay interested in a sport where breaking the rules was a recognised tactic? But round-ball football - let's call it soccer - is so big that it will come and get you even when you try to ignore it.

Thierry Henry's hand ball
Just in case anyone missed it...

I lost count of the number of news programmes and annual sports round-ups and documentaries about Argentina when I had to watch the ball make contact with Maradona's hand before it continued its journey, went into the goal, and put England out of the 1986 World Cup. Even today, Maradona will turn up on a cooking programme to show you the hand that handled the ball. He calls it "the hand of God".

Well, I suppose he wouldn't call it the hand that brought a whole sport into disrepute. So Maradona stirs the gazpacho with a wooden spoon held by the hand of God while the producer cues the footage that once again shows the tarnished angel cheating. Any footballer's hand can get hit by the ball accidentally, of course, but in a real sport, if the result was unfairly advantageous to his side, he would tell the referee. Not in soccer. Because soccer is too important?

No, because soccer is a pain in the neck. Now a whole new cycle of football cheating footage has begun with Thierry Henry's success in handling the ball in such a manner that Ireland went out while France went up, or went somewhere.

Maradona in action
... or this one

I couldn't care less, except that I know I'm going to have to see that footage again a hundred times, especially when I'm trying not to. I'll be watching a historical programme about Louis XIV and there it will be.

Everyone in the world saw Thierry Henry handle the ball except the referee. The obvious question is why, if we can see such a thing happening live on television, the referee can't see it shortly afterwards, even if he couldn't see it at the time?

America does it better

In American football, America being America, a tribunal the size of the Senate on a busy day examines the replay and sends down its ruling to the referee. Employing this method, the American football world avoids the anomaly by which the soccer world puts the referee in the position of not being able to visit Ireland for the rest of his life.

Clive James
A Point of View is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT
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The US, of course, as any soccer fan will tell you, pays the penalty of having a pointy-ball football code ludicrous beyond belief. But I actually prefer watching American football when I can. The level of aggression is nuclear but everyone can see what's going on. There is a lot of palaver, and an hour of play, what with all the interruptions, lasts longer than Lohengrin, but at least the rules rule.

That's probably the main reason why there is so little violence off the field, among the fans. All the violence is on the field, and none of the fans feels robbed by a bad ruling, because there won't be one. Hence the fans do not attack each other, or lay waste the surrounding district.

Pointy-ball football - aka that played in the US by quarterbacks
Now you're talking

Soccer fans frequently feel robbed and react accordingly, but almost always they are attacking the wrong people. Their real enemies are the people who wrote the rules, long ago. The off-side rule, for example, was written by a Druid that the other Druids couldn't understand. After the first grand final at Stonehenge stadium, the referee was evenly distributed around the pitch.

The philosopher Wittgenstein once said that a game consists of the rules by which it is played. Though rumours persist that he played inside left for Cambridge United under a pseudonym, Wittgenstein in fact knew next to nothing about football. It would have presented him with a game that consists of rules impossible to interpret. But perhaps he knew that and was talking about something else. Lawn bowls. Chinese checkers. Mud wrestling.

Football fans know all about the bad rules but they love the game anyway. It could be that I just don't love any variety of football enough to put up with the drawbacks. I was the worst scrum half that the Sydney Technical High School third grade rugby union side ever had, and you don't get over that much early evidence that you lack talent.

Rolling around in mud at Glastonbury
Play by the rules, guys

I was similarly untalented in athletics, and later on, though I strove to get interested, I lost interest quickly when drugs turned out to be involved. They began in the East. It was East Germany that started turning some of its women sprinters into men.

They even did it to the swimmers. Not long before the Sydney Olympics, I hosted a black-tie fundraiser for the Australian Olympic team and I met some of my Aussie women swimming heroes, who spoiled my night by telling me that they had never got over the revelation that the best years of their lives had been wasted competing against robots built in East German laboratories.

Drugs don't work

Eventually the drugs spread West and ruined the Olympics completely. When the beautiful American sprinter Marion Jones got busted I strove to tell myself I had no reason to care, because I could never run very fast anyway, so why should it bother me that those who could were faced with the choice of cheating or coming second?

Sherone Simpson and Marion Jones in Rome, 2006
Marion Jones, just pipped at the post

But I could never drive a car either, and yet I loved Formula One motor racing. I even went on loving it right through the period of Team Orders, when the team decided which of their two drivers was going to finish first, or at any rate ahead of their other driver.

I strove to stay fascinated even as it became clearer all the time that technical advances were making the sport boring, because the cars couldn't get past each other. A whole Grand Prix season would be one procession after another like a funeral on fast-forward, but you would still find me talking learnedly about how it was really all right for Senna to punt Prost off the road because it was within the rules.

With so much money at stake, everybody bent the rules to the limit but at least nobody cheated. A sport for gentlemen, right? When Lewis Hamilton got the world championship, it was a bigger thing for me than Barack Obama getting the presidency. Jenson Button was the next champion and I liked that too. But then Nelson Piquet Jr of the Renault team said that his team leader had instructed him to crash so that the team's other driver, Fernando Alonso, could win a race.

Flavio Briatore and his wife Elisabetta Gregoraci
Renault team leader Flavio Briatore was unfairly endowed with wealth, silver hair, Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum, but I had always tried to like him

The team leader, Flavio Briatore, was unfairly endowed with wealth, silver hair, Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum, but I had always tried to like him. After that, I liked him less, and I liked the sport less too. Now I can sometimes miss watching a whole race without much caring. I can never do that with the snooker. I watch every frame.

Snooker is still a game that consists of the rules by which it is played. I knew the producer who picked snooker out as the ideal game for television when BBC Two went to air in colour. His name was Phil Lewis and he asked himself the question: "What's the game that needs colour?" I was clamped to the screen from the first season.

I just loved the way the players respected the rules, and they still do. Despite every attempt by the producers to camp up the tournament with interviews, documentaries, chirpy introductions and dire humour, the game is still essentially two young men in black tie who would rather die than cheat. The black tie, since those first days, has been augmented by enough logos on the waistcoat to rival Shinjuku by night, but the attitude is the same.

You won't catch Ronnie O'Sullivan apologising for being ambidextrous, but he does apologise if he scores a fluke. They all do. And any of them, if he accidentally brushes the wrong ball with his sleeve, will instantly yield the table to his opponent, even if neither his opponent nor the referee saw it happen. They want to win fair and square.

Polite champions

Golfers want that too. Privileged by retirement, I can watch every big match through all four days and I keep watching even if nothing is happening except Tiger Woods looking for a lost ball. He did that several times before missing the cut in the last British Open, the one that Tom Watson almost won even though he is practically my age.

Tiger Woods in a sandtrap
Looking for something, Tiger?

What a performance, and especially when he over-hit his approach shot to the last green and must have known straight away that he had blown it. If ever there was a time to break a club over his caddy's head, that was it. But he just pursed his lips.

I thought tennis might be lost to me in the age of McEnroe, because it was quite clear that the All England Club were incapable of dealing with his tantrums, and could even convince themselves that he was within the spirit of the game. But Borg was there to reassure me that the spirit of the game was still safe. I admired McEnroe's brilliance both on and off the court but Borg was my guy.

Until Sampras was. And now it's Federer. One well-behaved champion after another. Maybe we've just been lucky, and a top 10 tennis player will soon turn up who tries to poison his opponent. And maybe some aspiring snooker champion will invent the radio-controlled cue-ball.

But until then, I've still got two places to hide from Thierry Henry. Wait a second. I can see a TV screen in the production booth. Aagh.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I used to be married to a man who loved his sport, especially football, but he was incredulous that I found the whole experience less comfortable than an hour of dentistry... He'd make me watch all manner of events and then tell me afterward how fantastic that game/race had been. To me, most sports are less to do with skill, and more to do with creative performance in an effort to bring the audience ratings up. I do wonder if there's a difference in the "rule bending" for women's football though. (And I agree with Clive about snooker, an enthralling game because there is so much respect for the game itself.)
Heather, Willenhall

Clive, as a fanatical soccer fan for many years, struggling to justify the game since the arrival of "gamesmanship" (whoever coined such a malapropism?) - and Irish to boot - I empathise entirely. And really enjoy the snooker too.
George, Rennes, France

I wonder if the rule enforcement is intentionally poor. It is a simple thing to introduce video referees, but I believe it has not been introduced because it creates controversy, arguments, fans feeling cheated, the violence, abuse and passion - I am sure Fifa feels it all "fuels" the success of the game. As a Chelsea fan I feel saddened to watch Essien intentionally foul his opponents every week, I wish a video referee would quickly put an end to it so he could just be known as a great player. In fact we do not need video referees to clean up the game. Dive in the box, or handball, if the referee asks if you did it and you say no, and at a later date it is proven you did, you receive a 10-match ban.
Andrew, Oxford

I have lived in several countries and watch few sports. I gave up on playing soccer at age 12 when I couldn't figure out the offside rules. 40 years later and I am still confused. One big problem with soccer is the low scores. If you have game with a dozen scoring events in a game then any one is not so important. But if you have a tournament where there is only one or two chances to score, then the temptation to cheat is so much greater.
Gregory, Edmonton, Canada

Isn't this a (heavily) skewed analysis of an immensely popular sport? There are examples of players who refuse obvious advantages like penalty kicks and red cards to the opposition? Arshavin springs to mind first. Being a Manchester United fan, I loathe everything Arsenal but if I remember correctly, Arshavin remonstrated with the referee in a game against Portsmouth when Arsenal were awarded a penalty for what was obviously an excellent tackle on Arshavin himself. Of course, the decision once taken couldn't be reversed but its the spirit that counts isn't it? If you dig further, I'm sure you could come up with plenty more similar incidents. It's the people who play the sport that count, not the (supposed) incompetence of the officials or the rule makers.
Ashwin, Chennai, India

Football, as a sport that makes role models out of its star players, has a responsibility to demonstrate fair play, and show in the glare of the cameras individuals taking responsibility for their own actions and playing by the rules and yes, even if the finance director might not like it, calling fouls on themselves when they know full well they've cheated. And I'm talking about doing that instantly on the pitch, not in the post-match interview.
Judith, Bristol, UK

Not one word about the Tour de France?
Jean Dixsaut, Paris, France

You're being a little naive Clive, if you think that an interpretation of a bad rule in football (not soccer, please!) leads to hooliganism. The thugs have already decided when and where to have a post-match fight before the game is even played.
Margaret, Christchurch, NZ

Another sport that may interest you is curling. It is largely a self regulated sport whose participants wouldn't dream of taking an unfair advantage.
Peter Yardley, Campbell River, BC, Canada

Sir, it must be hell inside your head. Sport watching must be a tedious, mathematical process, your description of sports sounds more akin to a machine computing code than what belongs to a true spectator. The passion of soccer as THE global sport is unmatched, especially by something as irrelevant in the grand scheme of things as oblong-ball soccer, that war-based barbarity you call American football. You miss the point in pointing to a few bad apples as condemnation of the sport. "The spirit of the game" doesn't revolve around the pitch of the World Cup, but around anywhere where enough plastic can be tied together to make a ball and four rocks can be found to make goals: soccer cuts through class lines, and is often the only commonality that someone in the slums of Nairobi can find with a businessman in Dubai or a snooty BBC commentator. THAT is why we love the sport.
Santiago Perez, Mexico City, Mexico

It seems that Clive James can't even live by his own rules. He promised he'd never watch F1 again years ago, but seems to have been loving it all through that period.
Nigel Baker, Lewes, UK

I'm an American, new to "football", and so I've been really interested in this whole affair, and have watched the video over and over... Irish fans need to have a closer look at the video, too. The Irish defenders are in position, but instead of STOPPING Henry's cross, they're all calling for the penalty - while the ball is still in play, before it's headed, while it was still in the BOX. Had they been doing THEIR job - instead of the referee's - they'd be in the World Cup now.
Jon, Aberdeen (New Orleans)

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