As he contemplates his ruin and an OJ Simpson-style future of trying to make a living from notoriety, Lance Armstrong has the consolation of knowing there is one accolade he thoroughly deserves, one distinction of which he can never be stripped. Sportsmen and women have generated enough autobiographies to fill a library. Many reveal little beyond the scale of the subject’s self-regard and the limitations of their minds. Very few are as compelling as Armstrong’s story of winning the Tour de France after overcoming advanced testicular cancer. And as columnist Joe Bennett pointed out, no other title comes close to matching the irony of It’s Not About the Bike. Although sport by and large is an irony-free zone, soccer’s apparent inability to rid itself of racism puts its tagline, “the beautiful game”, up there with Armstrong’s title. No sooner had the protracted John Terry affair been semi-resolved than new racism rows broke out. Terry was accused of racially abusing an opponent, prosecuted and acquitted. He was then fined and suspended by the English Football Association, whose review concluded that his successful defence was “improbable, implausible and contrived”.
Black England under-21 players were racially abused by Serbian spectators; Terry’s club, Chelsea, accused referee Mark Clattenburg, who had charge of the men’s final at the London Olympics, of calling its Nigerian midfielder John Mikel Obi a “monkey”. Police are investigating. Meanwhile, the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign has been undermined by some black players’ refusal to participate in protest at what they see as Terry’s inadequate punishment, a stance that could be categorised as refusing to take yes for an answer.
Locally, the big soccer story was the fallout from an incident in the Wellington Phoenix-Adelaide United game that led to Phoenix defender Ben Sigmund being red-carded for supposedly tripping home team striker Jeronimo Neumann. Neumann (who is from Argentina, the land that gave us the “Hand of God” goal) clearly appeared to have taken a dive. But Football Federation Australia bosses did what sports administrators tend to do when confronted with evidence of officiating stuff-ups: they ignored it. Instead of acknowledging a mistake had been made and punishing the real guilty party, the FFA upheld Sigmund’s red card and uttered not a word of censure of Neumann.
Compounding this absurdity, Phoenix captain Andrew Durante is being investigated for allegedly bringing the game into disrepute by calling Neumann a “cheat”. It was Neumann, of course, who brought the game into disrepute, but don’t be surprised if the FFA punishes Durante for pointing that out. Attempting to con referees by diving, faking injury or exaggerating the extent of an injury is an unsightly blemish that the beautiful game has long ignored, excused and even admired.
According to Adelaide coach John Kosmina, “Some players dive, some players don’t. Some players milk fouls, some players don’t. It’s part and parcel of the game and it’s part and parcel of sport. It’s not cheating.” If it’s not cheating, why can players be red-carded or suspended for diving? Yes, participants in other sports try to con match officials, but their success is seldom as consequential as a wrongfully awarded penalty is in soccer. And there are few sporting spectacles as unsporting (and unedifying) as that of players who have barely had a finger laid on them writhing around like epileptics with the aim of getting an opponent sent off. It is high time soccer stopped taking its beauty for granted and had a good look in the mirror.