Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa admitted that he had sent one of his staff to spy on his opponent and took full responsibility. He also refused to apologize, and politely declined to promise that he would not do it again, arguing that he had done nothing illegal. The next morning, his club issued this statement: "Following comments made by Marcelo Bielsa yesterday the club will look to work with our head coach and his staff to remind them of the integrity and honesty which are the foundations that Leeds United is built on."
The only honest person in this incident is Bielsa. He confessed to what he had done, but refused to lie by pretending to be sorry. He is a professional, and his job is to win games. If, however, Frank Lampard, Derby County and Leeds United are suggesting a new set of sporting values about "what's right", to use Lampard's phrase, then I'll look forward to their teams playing like 19th century English gentlemen in the coming weeks. Here's my suggested code of conduct:
• no holding an opponent's shirt, or wrapping your arms around them to gain an advantage. It's in the Laws of the Game.
• no pressuring referees by constantly hounding them about decisions and complaining about opponents. It's also in the Laws of the Game.
• no appealing for a throw-in or a corner kick every time the ball goes out of play, even though you know you were the last player to touch it. It's against the spirit of the game, and is also known as cheating.
• no falling to the floor every time an opponent touches you, but hasn't fouled you, in order to deceive the referee. It's against both the Laws and the spirit of the game, and it's also cheating.
• no using your hand to surreptitiously score or set up a goal, as demonstrated by all-time greats (and cheats) Diego Maradona, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi, none of whom ever apologized.
• no simulating an injury, or taking 20 seconds over a goal kick or a throw-in when your side is defending a narrow lead.
• no running down the clock by shielding the ball by the corner flag -- not against the Laws of the Game, but definitely against its spirit.
We could all cite numerous other examples of "what's right" and what's not, and that's before we've talked about tapping up other clubs' players, poaching minors, or having your team bankrolled by oligarchs and authoritarian states. We could also fairly argue that FIFA is at fault for not instructing referees to properly implement the Laws of the Game in order to enforce the sporting values that are apparently so valuable to teams like Leeds and Derby. Sportsmanship, though, is not something that you should have to enforce. It's something you either believe in, or you don't. And if you're a professional, you believe in winning for the club that's paying your wages.
There is nothing in the Laws of the Game, by the way, that says you cannot send someone to watch your opponents while they practice. I agree that it's hardly an example of fair play and Corinthian values. Yet it's no worse than any of the blatant gamesmanship cited above, which is a huge part of professional soccer - several times over, in every game. Thanks to the example set by the pros, that now counts for large swathes of amateur and youth soccer too.
The unsporting behavior "that goes beyond what's right" eventually comes down to what suits every individual fan, player or team. When it helps us to win, we laugh up our sleeve and tell our opponents that it's only a game. When it causes defeat, we rage in the stands, on the sofa and through our keyboards about how we have been conned by a disgraceful cheat who should be fined, banned or flogged.
Or, like Mr. Lampard, we reach for our pockets and take a reading on our selective moral compass. Let's not fool ourselves, though, that a single person involved in the modern and inherently amoral professional game cares about anything besides winning, by whatever means they think they can get away with.
(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)