Sunday 23 October 2016

Richie Sadlier: It's hard to identify the line which shouldn't be crossed when it comes to sledging

Professional sport isn't always about preserving respect for an opponent

Published 23/08/2015 | 14:00

Malmo goalkeeper Johan Wiland
Malmo goalkeeper Johan Wiland

Celtic's players are pigs, apparently. All of them.

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 According to Malmo goalkeeper Johan Wiland, speaking after the first leg of their Champions League play-off tie on Wednesday evening, said they were more concerned with shooting their mouths off than concentrating on their game. Malmo's players obviously weren't impressed.

Wiland singled out Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths for having "behaved like a child," while defender Rasmus Bengtsson focused his complaints on Nadir Ciftci. "(He) wasn't particularly nice," said Bengtsson.

Two responses to this: either get over it or give it back. If you're disappointed your opponent verbally taunts you on the pitch, don't respond by doing the same to them in the media. It looks silly. It looks like you haven't realised that professional sport isn't always about maintaining respect and admiration for your opponent.

It may even give the Celtic squad extra motivation for the second leg on Tuesday. Given that what's at stake is a place in the group stage of the Champions League, then maybe it's best they keep their criticisms to themselves.

Whether it's down to greater media coverage or the openness of some players, it's no longer a surprise to learn that elite sportspeople spend their time and energy verbally assaulting one another during matches. It was allegedly the Celtic players on Wednesday evening. It'll be someone else today and someone new tomorrow.

I used to think it was only less talented players who bothered with this kind of intimidation, but it's as widely used as any other tactic. It's just another way to seek a competitive advantage.

The finest example is the 2006 World Cup final. Sledging is what eventually nullified the threat of Zinedine Zidane, and there aren't many other tactics you can think of that ever did that.

I was never particularly good at it, but I had team-mates - Dennis Wise being the stand-out performer - who consistently got the better of opponents by dragging them into verbal disputes. It never seemed to affect how Wise played. If anything, it seemed to make the game more enjoyable for him.

He could give it and take it and nearly always came out on top. Opponents would get furious with him, or at the referee for not dealing with him. He'd smile back at them like an innocent child, all the while somehow keeping his mind focused on his job. It was often hilarious looking at opponents lose the plot.

Earlier in the summer there were reports of a Donegal minor player being taunted by an opponent about the death of his father. Most people would agree that was harsh, that it was callous, mean-spirited and disrespectful. It was probably many other things as well, but that's what an insult is. It's designed to throw an opponent off their game. It could even act as a helpful focus for the person giving it out, but it's never about considering the wellbeing of your opponent.

It's hard to identify the line which shouldn't be crossed. After all, if your purpose is to intimidate and insult your opponent, why should there be a threshold at all? Why should you limit the effectiveness of a strategy you've deployed? If you're okay with the principle, why not go all in?

There are obvious exceptions when it comes to particular phrases, but there's something absurd about distinguishing between what's acceptable and what's over the top. "I threatened to break his leg in the next tackle, but, Jesus, I'd never be as low as to slag off his family." It's a point of view that lacks any joined-up-thinking, but you'd be amazed at how many players think this way.

In fact, it's almost like you're missing the point if you're arguing over the content. Even complaining about it shows a degree of naivety. It's like moaning about opposition supporters booing you. It's a part of the game that isn't going to go away. The additional penalties for using particular types of language - racist or homophobic, for example - are aimed at sanitising it somewhat, but there'll never be a day when sledging is eradicated entirely. It's far too effective a weapon.

When the day comes that all players are psychologically robust enough not to be affected in any way by verbal taunts, silence will break out. Around the same time, the watching crowds will stay quiet too.

Jo Inge Berget, scorer of both Malmo's goals last week, had a different view than his team-mates on Celtic's behaviour. "We knew before the game that it would be tough, so you just have to roll with it." When it comes to dealing with sledging there's no other way.

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