Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, or indeed watching Sky Sports News, where they valiantly pretended the story wasn’t going on around them, you may have heard about the spot of bother Richard Keys and Andy Gray got themselves into, going all 1950s alpha male by slagging off the ‘state of football today’ for daring to employ a female lineswoman (who, incidentally, was excellent), while ‘hilariously’ joking about how she would need to be taught the offside rule, being, you know, a woman, and therefore incapable of understanding some complexities. Seriously, these guys missed their calling in stand-up. Don’t give up the day job….oh.
That they no longer have jobs at Sky has less to do with the incident that started the furore (the type of which would normally result in a slapped wrist), and more to do with the fact that they were almost universally disliked within the organisation they worked in. Subsequent leaked videos proved that the ‘joke’ was anything but a one off, and the lack of support from a company that usually rallies around its most esteemed employees was extremely telling. Never was this plainer than yesterday, when Keys went on Talksport and proceeded to commit career suicide with the worst of attempted apologies. That Sky deemed it unnecessary to aid their presenter with prepared material was akin to giving himself the rope with which to hang himself. Keys resigned later that day.
Gray, on that other hand, had already been sacked, and is considering legal action, which he will certainly win. Don’t get me wrong, I have no sympathy for either of them – their smug arrogance belied their own feelings of self-importance, and they had almost become parodies of themselves, their catchphrases (“Take a bow, son”, and “and it’s LIVE”) grating more with every passing week. But from a legal perspective, Gray’s is an open and shut case. He was warned about his future conduct after this week’s incident, and then sacked when it transpired he had done it before. However, you cannot fire someone for not heeding a warning when the second act occurred before the warning was received. It simply will not stand up in court.
It is precisely the same reason why referees cannot give a player two yellow cards in the same incident, no matter how many bookable offences they commit. Ever wonder why when player A hacks player B down, and then they square up to each other, the referee gives them equal punishment of a yellow card? Logic suggests that if B was booked for the squaring up, so should A, and given the booking he received for the original foul, he should be off, but it doesn’t work that way. A yellow card is a warning as to the player’s future behaviour, and a second yellow card comes when that warning is not heeded. The second card cannot be earned before the first has been officially given. In the legal sense, Gray hasn’t had the chance to heed the warning – he has been sent off for a foul he committed off the ball half an hour earlier, that the referee has just seen on the big screen.
The football world has gone into righteous indignation mode, with Henry Winter, the man who loves a bandwagon, leading the charge, tweeting over and over that he had written an article on the subject, as if we hadn’t noticed the first one and ignored it. The only surprise is that he resisted mentioning Henry’s handball somewhere in his piece, such is his inability to let things go. But while the faux surprise that sexism is rife in the Sky Sports studios has been nauseating, it has served a greater purpose – that sort of behaviour has no place in any workplace, and for it to be highlighted can only be a good thing.
Football does, however, have a habit of picking one evil, making a massive fuss over it for a week or so before going back to pretending there are no others to sort out. But while sexism is certainly an excellent problem to tackle, it is far from the only one. It isn’t even close to being the only prevalent form of discrimination that would be condemned in a ‘normal’ environment, yet is openly accepted in the alternative reality of football. I am referring in particular to xenophobia, which is both rife and legitimised.
During the first half of the Arsenal-Ipswich Carling Cup semi final on Tuesday night, Cesc Fabregas dived. It was a pretty poor attempt to win a penalty, and I expected him to be rounded on at half time. He was, but one line used by Alan Hansen struck a chord:
“These continentals have brought us great football, but they’ve also brought us diving.”
It was said brazenly, and raised no eyebrows in the studio. “These continentals” was used as a term presumably to represent all foreigners who have ‘corrupted the English game with their cheating ways’. Cesc was included in that ludicrously sweeping bracketing of nations, despite having barely broken into our first team by the time Wayne Rooney was diving to win United the penalty that ended our unbeaten run in 2004/5. Any corruption of the apparently previously squeaky clean game had occurred long before the Spaniard had come along.
That foreign players brought diving to the English game is a fallacy that the English media, players and pundits like to promote. It dates back to World Cup 90, the first time it became a real issue in our national papers, largely because the offences were being committed on the grandest stage. Klinnsmann was making a name for himself as a theatrical cheat during West Germany’s triumphant run, never more so than against Argentina, when his histrionics ensured Pedro Monzon became the first player to see red in a World Cup final.
Four years later, Klinnsman became one of the most high profile foreign players in the English game when he joined Spurs, becoming one of the early adopters of the Premier League’s rise to prominence. He was still best known for his playacting, a fact he showed himself aware of with his self-deprecating celebrations. Despite curtailing that activity before he even arrived in the country, he was perhaps the first to be labelled as ‘the cheating foreigner who will corrupt our honourable game’. That stigma has never left those coming to these shores, and neither has the country’s distrust of foreigners subsided.
Football, as a global sport, is now richer, more powerful and more greedy than ever before. Prizes for success are astronomical, and with that certain moralities have dissipated – the agent is now the corrupting voice in the ear, contracts are there to be broken at will, and diving to win a crucial penalty is seen as an acceptable risk. None of that is due to having more foreigners in the English game – it has far more to do with the greater rewards and consequences of success and failure.
To say that foreigners are the purveyors of diving and the only perpetrators is at best, laughably myopic and at worst, obscenely xenophobic and offensive. Steven Gerrard, a man adored by the very same Hansen who apparently abhors diving, will tell all and sundry how he tells his new foreign teammates that simulation is not accepted in the English game, only to do his best starfish impression the very next week. And he is not alone. Rooney is a persistent offender, while the likes of Ashley Young throw themselves to the turf at every occasion. Going back further in time, I don’t remember too many people complaining at how easily Michael Owen went to ground winning a penalty against Argentina in the World Cup.
Foreigners did not bring diving to the English game – it was an inevitability that came about by itself. To suggest that if we hadn’t imported Europe’s best talent then we would have avoided the problem is a laughable piece of self-denial. The game has exploded into a multi-billion pound industry, and with that comes cynicism and the desire to win at all costs.
Hansen, along with many other pundits and papers (particularly the openly racist yet strangely untouchable Daily Mail) will continue to blame foreign players for every woe in football. But not only are they misguided in the extreme, they are promoting an opinion that is every bit as outdated and objectionable as those that saw Keys and Gray ousted.