Offside, 26 September
Those offended by post-match melees should follow tennis instead.
Once again we have been subjected to the undignified spectacle of grown men, their faces contorted with rage, baying and shrieking like rabid animals.
I’m not referring to the gaggle of gurning Gooners who jostled and abused Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy, but the ensuing media scramble to occupy the moral high-ground. So deafening has been the sanctimonious chorus of moral indignation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Osama bin Laden himself had just performed a lewd sexual act with Anne Widdecombe on the Old Trafford turf.
‘Gunners boss is the game’s Professor of on-field anarchy’, fulminated the Daily Mirror as Arsene Wenger’s men once again lost their discipline (1). ‘They looked like a bunch of new recruits to the thuggish element who call themselves England fans’, bristled John Sadler in the Sun. ‘Had they been draped in scruffy flags of St George and wearing Burberry caps we would not have been able to tell the difference.’ (2) Except that, even with a Burberry cap, nobody could possibly have mistaken baboon-faced Martin Keown for a Homo sapiens, let alone a football hooligan.
Invariably, the Gooners have been accused of bringing the game into disrepute. ‘The face of the beautiful game was ravaged with scars and tears yesterday’, lamented Henry Winter in the Telegraph (3). ‘It was a day when England’s two most famous clubs managed to produce a match that dragged the national game down and through the gutter once again’, spluttered Steven Howard in the Sun (4). Considering how often football is supposedly shamed by misbehaving players it’s a wonder there is any reputation left to tarnish.
Am I alone in having found the outbreak of argy-bargy thoroughly enjoyable? I thought it was by far the most entertaining thing that happened all afternoon. Arsenal came to Old Trafford looking for a draw while Manchester United lacked the inspiration and guile to fashion a goal.
Even the needle, which has become a recurrent feature of this fixture, was sorely missing for most of the game. Most Sky viewers were probably dozing off in their armchairs by the time the game belatedly burst into life. It was only when Patrick Vieira lashed out at Ruud van Nistelrooy and received his marching orders that the entertainment really started.
Quite frankly, after watching the video replays of the post-match melee, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. There was a bit of pushing and shoving and some verbals but nobody was injured. Granted, I wouldn’t want a bulgy-eyed monkey-man jumping on me and hollering in my face, but then it only takes a minute to ring up London Zoo and ask them to send someone around with a cage and a tranquilliser gun.
Regrettably, some football fans have been calling radio phone-ins to vent their disgust at the behaviour of the Arsenal players. ‘What kind of example does it set to children?’ Yada, yada, yada. You know the sort of thing. Radio phone-ins and internet discussion forums have become something of a magnet for pious no-marks like this. If some people find the mere sight of footballers squaring up to each other so offensive I suggest that they find another sport to follow, one that is more suited to their delicate moral dispositions. Tennis, I’d suggest, is crying out for self-righteous whingers like them.
The repercussions from Sunday’s fracas look set to rumble on for some time. Six Arsenal players and two United players have been hit with misconduct charges, while Arsenal faces a fine for failing to control its players. FA chief executive Mark Palios has also ordered a review of disciplinary procedures to tackle ‘unacceptable behaviour’.
The incident has also rekindled the tired old debate about the behaviour of highly remunerated footballers. ‘When the feuding is over, one question is left’, wrote the Telegraph‘s Paul Hayward (5). ‘Will players accept their duty to protect the game that makes them millionaires or has football in the Premiership become a kind of ethical smash-and-grab?’
But Hayward misses the point. Football needs its occasional mass brawls to show that, in spite of their Rolexes, fast cars and mansions, players are still passionately committed to winning (or, in Arsenal’s case, drawing 0-0). If footballers stopped caring and tempers no longer boiled over in the heat of an emotionally charged battle, then the drama would be diminished, the fans would lose interest and the game would die.
(1) Shame on you Arsene, Martin Lipton, Daily Mirror, 22 September 2003
(2) FA must slam Arsenal, John Sadler, The Sun, 23 Sept 2003
(3) Humiliated Arsenal in the dock, Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph, 22 September 2003
(4) Arsenal are out of order, Steven Howard, The Sun, 22 September 2003
(5) Millionaires lose the plot, Paul Hayward, Daily Telegraph, 22 September 2003
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