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Jermain Defoe's little 'nibble' inspired yet another round of jaw-dropping moralising about footballers.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Footballers behaving badly: episode 93. In this week’s instalment the social fabric is once more under threat after Jermain Defoe bites Javier Mascherano on the arm.

If we consider a selection of notable furores in recent years we can see a clear pattern emerging. Paolo Di Canio pushing referee Paul Durkin, Newcastle’s Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer coming to blows, Arsenal players pelting Fergie with pizza, Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi, and Joey Barton flashing his arse: each a moment of pure comedy that was met by an overblown chorus of moralistic humbug. The reaction to Jermain Defoe’s bite has followed the same predictable template. In football parlance the Defoe controversy was a textbook training ground manoeuvre. A classic moral furore ought to contain most, if not all, of the following components:

  1. A fairly innocuous and amusing incident;
  2. Media compile ‘top ten’ lists ‘of similar incidents;
  3. Outraged supporters call radio phone-in programmes to express their disgust. Some no-marks complain to the police;
  4. Mournful elegies to the death of the Corinthian spirit and declining standards of sportsmanship are hastily recycled by self-righteous hacks;
  5. The police launch an investigation and the FA slaps a misconduct charge on the miscreant;
  6. Public figures and politicians declare that footballers are role models and warn of copycat school playground incidents;
  7. Wrongdoer issues contrite public apology and agrees to undergo anger management counselling.

The Defoe incident ticks most of these boxes though it looks as though the player may escape disciplinary action. When Anglo-Argentine relations were more fraught the spectacle of an Englishman biting an Argie would have been cause for public celebration. ‘Gotcha!’ as the tabloid headline writers might have said back then. The fact that Mascherano’s nationality has barely been mentioned is, I guess, progress of sorts. However, while the old flag-waving chauvinism was objectionable, today’s easily-offended, thin-skinned culture is, in many respects, even worse. The fact that Mascherano was not injured hasn’t stopped the moral bandwagon from gathering pace.

Spurs manager Martin Jol’s initial response was to make light of the incident. ‘He was nibbling his arm – there will be no mark. Ask Mascherano if he has got a mark and he will tell you,’ said the avuncular Dutchman. ‘It’s part of the game and they kicked him from behind three times in 10 minutes. He wanted to show his frustration in a nice, comical way.’ However, not everyone saw the funny side. ‘To receive a bite was the worst thing that has happened to me since I came to England,’ complained Mascherano. ‘This was unexpected and outrageous.’ Mascherano may have struggled to adapt to the hurly burly of English football but he has evidently had no problems learning how to play the victim.

Pretty soon the moralising was in full swing. ‘The seductive power of football to mislead the gawping public has reached new heights with the blinding discovery that to take a chunk out of a fellow player with your teeth is – altogether now – “part of the game”’, railed the Daily Telegraph’s Sue Mott (1). Uefa’s communications chief William Gaillard described biting as ‘a form of physical aggression, just like a head-butt or a punch, and as such has to be treated as violent conduct’.

Sports minister Richard Caborn urged the FA to investigate the incident. Even the normally sensible Tony Cascarino described Defoe’s behaviour as ‘outrageous’. ‘I thought that I could never be shocked by anything in football but, once again, the sport has shown its ability to stun even the most battle-scarred veteran’, declared the former Republic of Ireland striker (2).

Defoe was cautioned by the referee but the Football Association’s decision not to take further action has provoked howls of protest. ‘Sadly, nothing surprises me about the FA’, fumed Cascarino. ‘Here was a chance for it to come down hard, to show that it will not tolerate such behaviour. Yet it passed it up, limply and inexcusably’. Sixty per cent of Times readers who voted in an online poll felt that Defoe’s yellow card was inadequate punishment. Now, I’ve no reason to doubt these findings and maybe all my friends are vampire sympathisers, but I’ve yet to meet a single person who was in the slightest bit offended by Defoe’s little snack.

Defoe has issued a statement through his agent protesting that the incident had been ‘blown out of all proportion’. However, at the same time, he also felt obliged to recite the customary mantra that footballers ought to set an example to children. ‘The incident doesn’t look great on TV and I accept that as a role model to kids I have a responsibility to conduct myself in the right way which I always try to do on and off the pitch’, he said. Lee Randall, chairman of the Referees Association, warned of the potential ‘trickle down’ effect to the grass-roots of football. ‘If people see something happen on television on a Sunday afternoon in the Premiership, they will try to repeat it on recreational grounds up and down the country the following weekend’.

Excuse the pun but aren’t we in danger of making a meal out of a fairly harmless incident? People really ought to lighten up a bit. Jermain Defoe had a mouthful of Mascherano’s arm, he was booked, there was no lasting damage, end of story – or so it should have been. Yet once again a simple tale of Man Bites Man has been spun into another ridiculous morality play.

If Defoe goes unpunished will Western civilisation descend into cannibalism? Of course it won’t. In fact, if I’m proven wrong, I’ll eat my own arm.

Duleep Allirajah will be speaking at the session Should footballers be role models? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 29 October. You can join discussion and debate on six themes from the Battle of Ideas, including ‘Should footballers be role models?’, at tiscali.community.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Jolly Jol has bitten off more than he can chew, Daily Telegraph, 24 October 2006

(2) FA’s refusal to read riot act leaves bad taste in the mouth, The Times (London), 24 October 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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