By Paul Gardner
LONDON -- German striker Miroslav Klose has been much praised -- and rightly so -- for his recent act of sportsmanship. He put the ball in the net for Lazio against Napoli only three minutes into the game. The referee signaled the goal -- and then annulled it when Klose owned up to using his hand to score.
OK, the Napoli players did kick up an almighty stink before Klose confessed and, as things turned out, Lazio was soundly beaten, 3-0, anyway. Never mind, what Klose did was so unexpected, so rare in these days, that it seemed almost shocking. And that’s where we are these days when, in the world of professional sports, a simple act of honesty comes as a stunning surprise. We are much more accustomed to cynical silence, like that of Thierry Henry, whose deliberate hand ball ensured that France, and not Ireland, progressed to the 2010 World Cup finals.
I just used the word “sportsmanship” and I’m right now wondering when was the last time I had occasion to use that word -- not in an abstract sense, but as an accurate description of a real-life action by a real-live human being?
Not for a heck of a long while. We’ve grown used to accepting a rather different attitude, a cynical attitude that regards sportsmanship as a romantic dream. Our acceptance is really something that we should be ashamed of. There has been in England recently a neat, and sad, exposure of the modern attitude to sportsmanship.
Let us pay a visit to the village of Bashley, in southern England. There is a soccer club here, but this is very definitely not Premier League territory. Welcome to a much tinier Premier League, that of the Evo-Stik Southern League -- which the BBC lists as “three steps below” the pro fourth division -- i.e. seven steps below the EPL.
Bashley’s stadium holds just 4,250 spectators. The big game of the year came on Sept. 8, a first-round Cup game against Gosport. Bashley tied that game 1-1 and on Sept. 11, in the return game, was looking for a win at Gosport. Late in the game, with the score tied at 2-2, Bashley scored. Or maybe not. The ball went into the net where the Gosport goalkeeper, in a moment of petulance at having conceded the goal, whacked it hard into the side netting. In which there was a hole. So the ball ended up outside the netting. That was where the referee saw it. Neither he nor his assistant had seen it enter the goal, so all that Bashley got was a corner kick.
The game, still tied at 2-2, went to overtime, with Gosport coming out on top 3-2. Bashley felt cheated, not only of a famous victory, but of the $15,000 that advancing to the second round of the Cup would have brought in.
The story of the phantom goal was not really in dispute. Bashley vice chairman Tim Titheridge told the BBC: “A number of Gosport players, management staff, supporters and officials admitted that a goal should have been given, expressed sympathy and some even apologized to members of our club.”
Bashley felt so aggrieved that it announced an intention to write to the English Football Association (FA) to request a replay. But there is little chance of that. FIFA disapproves of replays, as do most soccer authorities -- they upset schedules for a start, and there is the dreaded possibility of “setting a precedent” that would open the floodgates for numerous other replays.
Titheridge said the referee was horrified when later informed of his error. But he exonerated the referee while criticizing some of the Gosport players: “We don't blame the referee for not seeing it, but we do blame the Gosport players for not owning up.”
But there was no Miroslav Klose among the Gosport players to speak up. “I could not see what happened,” said the Gosport coach Alex Pike, “but after the game I asked my players what had gone on and two said they didn't know, two said it wasn't a goal and seven said it was a goal. The indication is it was a goal.”
But Pike then swept sentiment and sportsmanship aside and spoke with the measured, rational tones of the modern game:
“There is a lot of prize money at stake and I would not expect my players to own up. These things happen in soccer.
“I attach no blame to my players. I can't speak on behalf of the club, but if they asked me I would tell them I am not willing to re-play the game.
“I don't agree that it is an extraordinary circumstance, this sort of thing happens in soccer all the time. A replay would be a futile gesture. What would they do? They are only writing to the FA because they ended up losing. They had the same opportunity to score in extra-time as us.”
Pike’s last remark, of course, completely overlooks the solid fact that it was the phantom goal that took the game to overtime. Without that goal, Bashley was likely a 2-1 winner after the regulation 90 minutes. But even with that huge injustice, it is Pike’s voice, Pike’s view, that carries the day.
Klose reminded us, for however brief a moment, that sportsmanship is not yet dead. But Pike lets us know that it is no match for hard, practical realities.