Big Lang Theory: In praise of honesty



As morality tales go, this one doesn't have the best of starts. A corner whipped in from the right is flicked into the Napoli goal by the hand of Miroslav Klose, channeling the Hand of God at the very ground where Maradona strutted his stuff in the late 80s. It was, to be sure, an attempt to pervert the justice of the game, a knowing and very literal sleight of hand from the German striker.

Of course, this kind of thing happens often in football. Examples needn't be so conspicuous. Players foul opponents and protest their innocence. They appeal for throw-ins they know should go the other way. They beg, steal and borrow any advantage possible.

Klose, though, had other ideas. After a second during which he must have considered just celebrating (an early goal at Stadio San Paolo being fairly hard to come by) and a few more during which the Napoli players went stir crazy, he admitted to the referee that the goal was illegal and should not be allowed to stand. This earnt him several pats on the back from the home players and widespread acclaim in the football media.

It wasn't the first time that football's heart has been warmed by an act of honesty. In a 1997 match between Liverpool and Arsenal, Robbie Fowler pleaded with the referee not to give a penalty after he flopped to the floor following a David Seaman non-challenge. Again, the waters were clouded by an initial, ostensibly unthinking dishonesty - Fowler clearly dived - but the forward made amends by hitting a tame penalty that Seaman saved. (Jason McAteer scored from the rebound, the callous bastard.)

Our reactions to these incidents, though, are of far more interest than the incidents themselves. We are enchanted by fair play. Credit is doubtless due to Klose for having the courage to harm his own side's chances in the name of fairness, but what a sad state of affairs that merely not being a cheat should be so noteworthy. The underbelly of the modern game - and, to an extent, of modernity itself - is set in grubby relief by such acts of honesty.

Some would have us believe that the gamesmanship we see in football is endemic only in the upper echelons of the game, where the amateur spirit has been perverted by the nefarious influence of money. This, as anyone who has ever watched a Sunday league game, is utter nonsense. The dark arts are arguably even more widely practiced away from television cameras, which, alongside the ability of the football authorities to revisit incidents, act as a strong repellent in the professional game.

The 16-stone Falmouth Town centre-back does not have to think about such possibilities. (Which is good, because he struggles to think of anything beyond beer, McDonalds and this week's episode of X Factor.) In matches refereed exclusively by spotty 21-year-olds and OAPs with NHS glasses, he is free to stand on the feet of strikers at corners, elbow ribs as if it were going out of fashion and threaten to break their legs after the match. (I speak from experience. I still have a full set of legs, if you were wondering.)

So accustomed are we to the footballing rebel's catechism we see around us, we see Klose as some frontier samaritan. Honesty should be the default setting in football, as it should be in all sports. Those mapping the direction of the game from meeting rooms in Soho Square and elsewhere would do well to foster it before even these infrequent instances of fair play fade away for good.