I don’t think I’ve ever written a blog post about football before, and hopefully I never will again. But during the opening round and a bit of the World Cup a few things have struck me about the sport in general, and possibly English football in particular.
Firstly, it’s not very sporting. Everyone nearby on the field, not least the German goalkeeper and defenders, knew that Lampard’s strike in England’s last-16 game had crossed the line – indeed, the German goalie clearly realised he might get away with it if he could just kick it away nonchalantly enough [EDIT: in fairness, he was facing the wrong way when the ball bounced, so he would only have seen it when it was mid-air, post-bounce... but everyone else was looking in the right direction]. But nobody told the ref. Similarly I saw a match that involved a hand-ball in the run-up to a goal, again unseen by the ref. The referee asked the player whether the ball had struck his lower arm. The player said it hadn’t, and the commentator poured scorn on the whole thing – as if the player would admit it! Well, if it was a proper sport, he would have done.
This isn’t a shock to anyone… But it should be, shouldn’t it? Football is a sport, but not one worthy of the name to judge by how the players at the highest level conduct themselves. In snooker, by contrast, a player who commits a foul such as accidentally touching a ball will invariably draw it to the referee’s decision – it’s only sporting, after all.
Now, the refereeing situations in football mentioned above do have a big problem: the referee can’t give a goal, or a foul, unless he’s seen it. So the failure to award a goal to Lampard wasn’t specifically the ref’s fault, or that of his assistants – all of them were too far away to judge it. And unlike snooker, football doesn’t use technology to settle contoroversies. And I’m not just talking about video replays – which have been feasibly for well over a decade – but a Hawkeye system or similar.
The biggest point of contrast between the two, however, relates to pressure. In a close snooker match, top-class players can miss the easiest shots under the glare of the camera, with the audience close around them and knowing they stand to lose or gain huge amounts in their careers and financially. It is one man alone at the table: it is obvious to all that it is a highly pressured situation. The best snooker players learn how to cope with that pressure.
Yet nobody seems to have been talking about football in the same terms. The pressure may not be applied in exactly the same way, but surely the reason these usually very good football players have totally failed to deliver in England shirts is the pressure of expectation. Specifically, the totally unrealistic expectation that they might somehow win the tournament. Even if they were to play to their full ability it would be a dubious hope; but when worked up into a fervour on a national scale, it becomes totally self-denying. But what else is the difference between the qualifying matches that England won with some style and the finals matches, and those leading up to them, in which they floundered so badly?
I’m sure there are lots of other factors: the lack of strength in depth in the Premier League owing to the heavy use of overseas players; the excess rewards for top footballers (by all means play them decently, by all means acknowledge their careers will be short… but compare their wages to the prize money in snooker, which is very decent if you can win it, but not millions); the perennial in-fighting and resulting poor decision-making at the FA; and other things, no doubt. But in terms of the general approach to the sport by players, football could do a lot worse than take a few lessons from snooker.