Football – Losing its sporting spirit?

By Stephen Russell-Lacy.

There is something about association football (soccer) that is very appealing. The game is played by over 250 million players in over 200 nations and has the highest television audience in sport. What is it that makes football so popular? Has it still got its sporting spirit?

Unfair play

I’m familiar with football in England both on television and from the stands.

sporting spirit

I feel that unfair play is spoiling the game. Some pundits speak of the so-called ‘tactical foul’ like shirt tugging as if taking an unfair advantage is okay. Yet, doesn’t cheating undermine fair play?

We hear of the ‘professional foul’ as when it is said with approval ‘He took one for the team’ for an unfair advantage perhaps stopping a dangerous attack on goal. His offence resulted in  a yellow card from the referee.

Likewise, ‘diving’ can be blatant. More difficult to referee is the player who goes down unnecessarily when there is any sort of physical contact with the tackler. This is more common. When a player is apparently injured only to get up a bit later and immediately run at full pelt up the field, fans get very indignant. This is because feigning injury occurs in order to cause a stop in play and give team mates a breather or encourages the referee to brandish a red card sending off the opposing player from the field.

sporting spirit
Cheating ‘Hand of god’ goal

Football is a passionate game and so it should be. But an attitude of ‘winning at all costs’ can develop. This is killing the spirit of the game e.g. hand-balling the ball into the net.  Better to enjoy football for its own sake rather than believing that the only thing that matters is whether we win or lose.

Being a bad loser damages sporting spirit

It’s good to see opposing players and coaches shake hands after a game with both teams congratulating the other for their efforts. Likewise, the crowd claps when a player kicks the ball out of play if a player on the opposing side is hurt so he can get help.

However, bad losers come up with petty complaints about all sorts of things. When winning at all costs rules our hearts, then we will feel really fed up after a loss. Disgruntled with the referee, the substitutions, the bad luck.

But maybe the opposing team deserved to win in all honesty. How many times have you accepted ‘Yes we were we out-played, out-thought, out-run and out-fought: the better team won.’ Everyone is drawn to those who seem honest and fair. Even children know what fairness is and are most upset when cheating takes place.

Verbal abuse in football

sporting spiritFootball is only a game. But being hidden in a crowd some individuals want to be verbally abusive. They openly express hostility directed at players of the opposing team, the match officials, or people of a different race to their own. Some fans have been known even to abuse their own players who have made mistakes.

Even in the amateur game, abuse directed at the referee can continue from some players, coaches and fans. Some parents have been heard to scream at and curse referees in front of their own children.  Sadly, football culture has its vicious side now.

Loss of community sporting spirit

Being part of a stadium crowd can be a wonderful experience. Just being there, and part of the drama and spirit of the game with its thrills and unpredictability is a huge part of the fun. Living the 90 minutes with its ups and downs and fulfillments and disappointments.

Yet, with no live football on English terrestrial television, people watch the highlights on Match of the Day and seem to be happy just to see the goals and the red cards and penalties and not much else. Even watching live football on pay to view television lacks the communal aspect of football as a sport. Instead of being part of the crowd, the television viewer is watching one place removed.

Loss of competition in football

Modern top-flight football in England has been changed by pay to view television. It has thrown billions of pounds into creating astronomical wages, transfer and agents’ fees. And to some extent all this money has bought success on the pitch and a commercial windfall. Why else would businessmen want to invest in mainly the top Premier League clubs? So much so that others can barely compete and the same few big clubs are there or there about at the top by the end of the season.

Income disparities between the various leagues were once narrow giving lower league sides more of the chance of victory by virtue of having good veterans and talented young players with various cup competitions open to them. Now there is an absolute gulf between the top and other tiers of the game.

When the playing field is so uneven, it unfortunately reduces unpredictability which is vital for the spirit of sport. Matches featuring one of the wealthiest clubs can at times become an exhibition with a forgone conclusion rather than a competition.

Money orientation in football

Average pay in the Premier league is about £200,000 per month, £2.5 million per year. Fans are constantly trying to assess player commitment versus income, fees paid against performance. Some commentators suggest consequently football is now all about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. If it is true football has become mostly about money, it appears to be spoiling the top-flight game.

Conclusion about sporting spirit

Sport can be deeply satisfying to play and watch when the sporting spirit of the game is present. This means, being honest with ourselves about our team’s performance, showing consideration for all involved, celebrating ones participation in a shared enjoyment and playing fairly.

“Whatever is good and true, just and fair, and also honourable, has a strong and hidden power within it to attract people’s minds.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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