I attended a Catholic elementary school in the late sixties and early seventies in Madrid, Spain. We all received a citizenship grade; and another grade for dedication to our studies; that is, how well we applied ourselves. The citizenship grade carried a moral value that unconsciously weighed heavily in our minds. In the classroom the line between correct and inappropriate behavior seemed to be well defined but in the courtyard and on the sport fields the line became blurred and even disappeared.
The ethical classroom behavior that the Marianist brothers tried to inculcate in us was constantly challenged during recess and after school at the soccer games we played at school and in our neighborhoods. Fair play without a referee was a continuous source of tribal arguments: whether the ball went out of bounds; what player had touched the ball before it went out of bounds; whether the ball had gone right over the post marked by a backpack or a couple of books; whether the ball had gone over the imaginary crossbar that we all measured according to our own convenience or whether a handball was intentional were, aside from our individual and collective dreams of greatness that we all verbalized in different ways, our daily disputes. We had learned how to act from watching our heroes on TV. In most cases whoever was louder got his way.
At home and in black and white we saw sportsmanlike conduct and fair play or the lack of it in football games in Spain and the rest of Europe; and even in the World Cup matches. We heard stories from our parents about Di Stephano, Puskas, Bobby Charlton and so many other great players.
But we saw others who kicked or elbowed the opponents when the referee was not looking; tackled other players as if they were coming off a slide with their cleats up almost to their faces; handed the ball celestially like Maradona; poked opponents with needles hidden in their socks like Bilardo, the ex-Argentinean national coach when he was a young player; faked injuries to waste time or to make the referee card the offending player; and dived in the penalty and goal areas to seek an nonexistent penalty kick. Even trainers came on the pitch to help an injured player and then on their way off the field handed the opposing team bottles filled with water mixed with lethargic substances to slow them down on hot days. These actions damaged football and smeared everyone’s face. But it was not really our face; it was our collective soul, the soul of all of us who loved the game.
Winning, no matter how and without being caught, was what generation after generation of young lads was learning from their idols. Those who played fair ended up being the recipients of fair play awards. Deep inside we all knew that they played fair but we also knew that they were naïve. Kindness was a weakness.
Other sports seemed to have rules better suited for inhibiting unsportsmanlike conduct. If the game was stopped, the time was stopped as well; and if a player was cautioned, the player temporarily had to leave the field.
Yellow cards in football should carry an immediate consequence affecting the numerical superiority of one team over the other. When a player is cautioned, the player should leave the field for 15 minutes. In this way most of the anti fair play tactics, especially the ones that result in dirty playing, would not happen. Players would have second thoughts before engaging in such behaviors; at least, the ones who think before acting. Creative playing would be encouraged or protected at the expense of destructive or dirty playing. We are all tired of the unethical side of football on the pitch because we should teach our children better.
I am convinced that this is the way to clean football’s face: You can be brave enough to do whatever necessary to win, and carry it out in a sportsmanlike manner at the same time.