"I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating." ~ Sophocles
Sophocles obviously never played football (soccer for uninitiated Americans). He wasn't much of a fan, either, to judge by many of the comments left on this article from the English newspaper The Guardian. And it's a shame. Because the game could use a Sophocles right about now.
This excellent article, although inspired by one particular instance of egregious behavior at the World Cup, addresses a broader problem as widespread as it is heartbreaking. That is the lack of honest sportsmanship and fairplay at the highest levels of professional sports, particularly football, in this case.
I should say, before I go into any of the specifics, that I am a wholehearted Germany fan. I hoped they would give England a good shellacking, and rooted passionately for them in their game against the Three Lions. So when I decry what I am about to describe, let no suspicion of partisanship cross your mind.
For those of you living in a WC-less bubble, the specifics are as follows: Towards the end of the first half of the Round of 16 match between England and Germany, English midfielder Frank Lampard took a hard shot that hit the crossbar of the goal and bounced down into the goal, obviously a good two feet inside the goal line. Germany's keeper, Manuel Neuer, grabbed the ball out of the air and hustled it back into play. The referees, upfield and in poor position to see whether the shot was good, did not award England a goal, a goal that would have put England even with Germany going into the locker room.
As I watched this happen, I was dismayed. What I really wanted was for Germany to shoot a deliberate own goal to correct a truly horrendous mistake on the part of the referee, although even I knew that was too much to expect. "Oh, no," I said. "Nobody wants to win like that!" But, apparently, Neuer did. You see, in my naiveté, I assumed that Neuer hadn't seen whether the goal was good or not because he was twisting around, and simply grabbed the ball as quickly as he was able, to prevent a goal being scored if one hadn't been already, counting on the referee to stop play if a goal had been scored. Unfortunately, this best case scenario was not how it went down. When asked about the controversial call, Neuer said, "I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over."
Oh. Barf. Is this guy patting himself on the back for denying England a well-deserved goal?
Being fluent in German, I've searched the German online media for reactions to the so-called "Anti-Wembley Goal" (referring to the controversial goal scored by England in the 1966 World Cup final against Germany). It was a disappointing endeavor. Many articles mentioned the bare fact that England was denied a goal due to a ref's mistake, without making further comment, preferring to linger on the German team's dominant play and the fine performances of its young stars. A few articles cited the officiating howler as further justification for the introduction of high-tech referee assistance of one form or another. "Revenge is sweet," said some reader comments. I did not find one mention of Neuer's shameful admission.
Neuer's dishonorable action is just one of the latest, most sterling examples of an attitude rampant in the sport. The diving and injury faking that seem particularly rampant in the South American teams, but can be found everywhere, are another disgusting facet of the same problem. The shoving, jostling, jersey pulling, and occasional headlock in what is supposed to be a non-contact sport are minor symptoms. The attitude is that victory is the only acceptable outcome, and that any means to that end are justified.
What does this attitude in football say about us as a society? Because I'm afraid that this "at any cost" attitude isn't limited to the pitch. Consider all the scandals that have rocked major corporations in the past decade. The prevailing idea seems to be "anything goes unless you get caught." Want to buy hookers with company funds? Sure, just don't let anyone find out. Want to cook the books a bit to fool investors? Sure, just don't get caught. Want to speculate with other people's money? Sure, just don't lose it.
It's a chicken-and-egg problem. Have the standards of honor and fair play declined so precipitously on the playing field because we as a society no longer believe that honorable competition and fairness are valuable? Or have we absorbed this appalling attitude by growing up watching our overpaid heroes do whatever it takes to win, by any means necessary? I don't know the answers. I'm glad that the referee errors made at this World Cup are causing FIFA to revisit the question of technology, but I would be much happier if it caused us all to revisit our notions of decency and honor, on the pitch and off.