James Lawton: Premier League all at sea in unstoppable tide of cheating
Published 25/01/2013 | 05:00
Now we really know the plight of football, as it stumbles through its moral maze. At the moment, it doesn't quite know who to blame, the multi-millionaire player or the ballboy he kicked.
Rio Ferdinand came down on behalf of the boy – well sort of, in as much as he approved the red card for Eden Hazard. Michael Owen was a little more equivocal, suggesting that the uproar and Hazard's dismissal was sure-fire evidence that the world had gone mad. Even Joey Barton modified his initial reaction that the Belgian superstar's only crime was that he hadn't put the boot in nearly deeply enough.
There was, of course, a response that ran considerably deeper than the Professional Footballers' Association leader Gordon Taylor's concession that Hazard had lost his head to an unacceptable degree and deserved his punishment. This one said that football could hardly complain if it moved from one public relations disaster to another.
Not when it came in the wake of Alex Ferguson's latest charge that a match official had not only performed incompetently, but also with bias against Manchester United. Then there was the furore provoked by Luis Suarez's admission that he had deliberately dived against Stoke City because of the need to "invent something".
Suarez's manager Brendan Rodgers, who at the time of the offence refused to castigate his player – instead preferring to attack a campaign of 'vilification' against Suarez – then criticised the Uruguayan for admitting the offence on TV.
Rodgers said that Suarez was wrong to make his confession publicly, thus leaving a lasting impression that the crime was in the revelation, not the execution.
It seemed just another part of an ever-widening pattern, one in which more or less anything can be excused if it gives your team an advantage.
That was the real horror of the ballboy incident towards the end of Swansea City's dismissal of Chelsea from the League Cup. The ballboy, the 17-year-old son of a Swansea director, had tweeted before the game about his willingness to waste time if it served his team's cause. He had also signed himself as 'king of the ballboys'.
Remember that old image of the ballboy, the scampering figure dashing to retrieve the ball and tossing it to a player of either side eager to continue the action? He is apparently an endangered species.
For this insight, we have to be grateful to former England manager Glenn Hoddle. He told the TV audience that it was common practice now to brief ballboys to kill time if it was to the advantage of the home team.
In all the reaction, there was not too much evidence of professionals taking a backward step and considering quite what the incident represented.
One exception was former Liverpool midfielder Didi Hamann, who declared: "I don't mind the ref sending Hazard off, but it should open people's eyes to how much Premier League players are role models and children act as they do."
Another ex-player, Arsenal's Ian Wright, was in the Hazard camp, saying: "When the do-gooders are finished with this one, you'd think it was a Rodney King beating. I think the ballboy will be fine."
Possibly so, and perhaps to the extent of being something of a local hero, but that hardly addressed the horror that a teenager entrusted with official duties at an important match saw nothing wrong in intervening in the course of the action. He made sloth-like progress towards the ball, then capsized on top of it before the frustrated Chelsea player lashed out.
Swansea manager Michael Laudrup made a good stab at a balanced reaction.
While his opposite number Rafa Benitez announced that Hazard and the ballboy had apologised to each other, Laudrup denied that there was a club policy on time-wasting and that if Hazard had acted out of extreme frustration, he would surely come to regret his deed.
There is still another question – is football any nearer to recognising the mounting belief that it has lost most of what might have been considered moral bearings.
Before the Hazard incident, Chelsea's Demba Ba (left) was widely believed to have attempted to con referee Chris Foy into an early penalty award – a feat that his team-mate Ramires had, according to former Manchester United defender and now top Sky TV analyst Gary Neville, pulled off against Arsenal last weekend.
Neville's reading of the incident, which saw Ramires crash down against Wojciech Szczesny, came without a whiff of moral judgment. He said that Ramires had made a "clever dive", pulling his right leg back into contact with the goalkeeper.
The tide of cheating simply flows on, and if Arsenal chief Arsene Wenger was a victim in one vital match, he was the beneficiary when Santi Cazorla made arguably the season's most outrageous dive against West Brom.
Cazorla explained that sometimes you had contact, sometimes you didn't, but in any event it wasn't really a matter for discussion.
It is, of course, football's favoured position – at least until the moment when the victim is sufficiently important for his squeals of protest to be heard across the land. Or, now we know, when a ballboy pays for his 'crime' with a kicking.
Benitez said the problem was resolved when the boy came to the Chelsea dressing-room in his moment of extremely dubious fame. Isn't that a pretty thought?