Paul Thomas

The Ugly Game

Jun 27, 2015 | Sports

For years the English satirical magazine Private Eye has boasted about the Curse of Gnome, the bad karma that tends to befall powerful individuals who take legal action against the Eye to prevent it publishing embarrassing material or in revenge for doing so.

(Lord Gnome is the Eye’s mythical proprietor, an amalgam of every power-crazed, vindictive press baron from Lord Northcliffe to Rupert Murdoch.)

The most spectacular example of a litigious bully succumbing to the curse was the 1991 demise of media proprietor Robert “the bouncing Czech” Maxwell (nee Jan Hoch). The Eye had long maintained Maxwell was a bad egg; after his death – he fell overboard from his yacht, perhaps as a result of a heart attack – it emerged that he’d stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from his Mirror Group pension fund.

Far be it from me to claim that this column possesses similar karmic powers, but I draw your attention to the following from my 2015 wish-list (Listener, January 31): “That we finally see the backs of FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and the equally unlovely Bernie Ecclestone who runs Formula One motor racing. For far too long they have taken turns at being the unacceptable face of sports administration.”

The unfolding FIFA scandal begs two questions. First, why did it take so long to get here? I didn’t write the above because I knew stuff about FIFA that others didn’t. On the contrary, I just knew what everybody with a vague interest in sport knew: that FIFA was rotten to the core and has been for a long time.

Second, why do reporters and pundits keep calling soccer “the beautiful game”, as in “Yet another blot on the beautiful game?” How many more hideous blemishes have to be revealed before soccer ceases to be the beautiful game and commentators no longer feel compelled to trot out this preposterous mantra each time they peer into the cesspit?

Soccer’s entitled to call itself the world game because that’s what it is, largely by virtue of its simplicity. It undoubtedly can be a beautiful game, but then so can many sports when their exponents combine inspiration and virtuosity.

But what’s beautiful about diving in the 18 yard box to con the referee into awarding a penalty? Or pretending to be the victim of foul play – and dreadfully injured as a result - in order to get an opponent unjustly sent off, thereby creating an unequal contest?

“Character” is a big deal in sport. The term is shorthand for courage, stoicism, resilience, toughness. Is there any sport other than soccer in which participants can simulate suffering like a Shakespearian actor in a climactic death scene without losing the respect of everyone involved?

What’s beautiful about bribery and corruption on a grand scale?

Most sports have their flaws; some have an ugly side. Conning referees into awarding a penalty is small beer compared to methodical cheating involving performance-enhancing drugs, for instance. But other sports don’t label themselves the beautiful game, thus laying claim to superior ethics and aesthetics.

The beautiful game delusion partly explains why it took so long to bring FIFA to account. As with the advertising campaigns that portrayed smoking as cool and glamorous, artful marketing created a beguiling alternative reality.

And it took as long as it took for the world’s policeman to get on the case. Normally, America’s judicial reach and extraterritorial legal forays provoke discomfort, if not resentment, in the rest of the world. In this instance its intervention was greeted with a response these days seldom heard outside the US: God bless America.