'Bloodgate' takes pro sports to new low

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- This time I'm talking about football. No, not soccer -- but the other football that they play here, rugby football. A sport that has always maintained a rather superior attitude to soccer, a sport that has always presented itself as the sport for the middle and upper classes. A cut or two above the demonstrably working-class sport of soccer.

Yes, things have been changing. Soccer has spread way beyond its working-class fans and takes in masses of middle-class fans. But rugby's attitude of superiority has never gone away.

Maybe it will now, for the sport of rugby is embroiled in a sordid scandal involving one of its most famous clubs, and one of its leading coaches. A short explanation: there are two forms of rugby -- rugby league, always a pro game, and played only in the north of England; and rugby union, for decades a pure amateur game that has only comparatively recently turned pro. It is this pure game, still vested in snobbery, that is in trouble.

The case -- dubbed "bloodgate" -- is a shocking reminder of the way that winning in pro sports -- any pro sport -- is now all that matters. Forget about sportsmanship, fair play and just plain honesty, they are forgotten concepts.

Remember Roberto Rojas, the Chilean goalkeeper who hit the headlines in 1989 for faking an injury in a World Cup qualifier against Brazil? He was -- apparently -- hit on the head by a flare thrown by someone in the huge crowd at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Rojas was carried off the field, blood all over his face. The Chileans said it was too dangerous to continue playing and the entire team left the field. A week later the Chilean cheating was revealed. Rojas had not been hit by the flare but had faked his injury and the Chilean medical staff had supplied the gory make-up by splashing the red antiseptic Mercurochrome all over him.

FIFA banned Rojas for life, accusing him and some Chilean auxiliaries of "the biggest attempt at swindle in the history of FIFA."

Blood, or what looked like blood, is also at the center of the scandal that has just hit rugby. One month ago, the famous Harlequins team was playing Leinster in a crucial Heineken Cup quarterfinal. Harlequins were losing by one point with only minutes left. Now, if only their specialist goal-kicker Nick Evans were on the field, one swing of his foot would surely give Harlequins the points they needed for victory. But Evans was on the sideline, having already been subbed out of the game. He would be allowed back in should one of the Harlequin player suffer a "blood injury." Wing Tom Williams duly went down. He was treated on the field and left with blood pouring from his mouth. Evans was allowed to re-enter the game, but failed to produce the winning kick. Harlequins lost the game.

Another soccer reminder: remember Cristiano Ronaldo winking to the Portugal bench after he had supposedly influenced the referee to red card Wayne Rooney in the 2006 World Cup? Tom Williams was also caught on TV, winking as he left the field. The investigations started within days. The full implications hit home earlier this month. Tom Williams was banned from playing for a year (now reduced to four months). He had taken the field with a small capsule concealed in his sock -- a capsule containing red dye. He had bitten on this to produce the apparent injury to his mouth. It got murkier. The Leinster doctor was highly suspicious and demanded to inspect the injury to Williams' mouth.

But some time soon after the substitution, Williams' mouth was cut, apparently with a scalpel, creating a genuine injury. How that happened is still under investigation.

The biggest victim is Dean Richards, who has resigned as Director of Rugby at Harlequins. "Bloodgate" may well have put a finish to his chances of becoming the England rugby coach, a job for which he was being widely tipped.

Can this sort of trickery, of cheating, really happen amongst seasoned pros, respected administrators, at a famous club? Well, it just has. Harlequins have been fined 250,000 euros ($350,000). But the real damage, everyone is saying, is to the integrity of the sport. And then you really do start to wonder. The act of deception itself, obviously prepared in advance, was bad enough. But what sort of integrity are we talking about when the Harlequins club made matters a lot worse by denying everything and indulging in a cover-up?

It will please many soccer people in England to see the snotty rugby crowd taken down a peg or two. But here should be no smugness. Soccer's integrity, like rugby's, is already a compromised quality. Soccer's own version of "bloodgate" is probably simply a scandal waiting to happen. Pro sports, I'm afraid, are not nearly as good at providing role models as they like to think.


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