The nonsense of 'sporting values' in the pro game

When anyone involved with professional soccer talks about sporting values, we all need to steel ourselves against a wave of fatuous cant. It's rather like when a rich person talks about morals, a priest holds forth about virtue, or a politician lectures an opponent on integrity. We fallible mortals can only do our best to jeer them off their righteous podiums.

On Friday evening, Leeds United fairly beat Derby County 2-0 to stay on top of the English Championship. It turned out that a member of the Leeds coaching staff had been asked to leave Derby's training ground the day before the game. Derby's coach Frank Lampard was quite put out by the incident, although he did not blame it for the loss (how could he?). After the game, however, he claimed that he is accustomed to respecting his opponent: "I shake their hand before it [the game], and I shake their hand at the end of the game, and I try my best to beat them. That’s not me painting myself as an angel, because if I can try and win a game then I will do, but there are some things that go beyond what’s right.”

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.)

17 comments about "The nonsense of 'sporting values' in the pro game".
  1. Mike Lynch, January 15, 2019 at 11:27 a.m.

    Ian's description of the modern sport culture is tragically accurate and the norm in many places today, but that does not make it right or the optimal path to consistent high performance. If the point of sport is solely to win then steroids, spying, cheating, etc, are all just acceptable parts of the game. If an "ends justifies the means" sport culture rationalizes shortcuts and cheating, then of course, these same shortcut behaviors will infect technical training, tactical development, etc. Essentially, taking shortcuts actually cheats themselves out of getting better, getting good enough to beat a superior opponent. In addition all of Ian's descriptors of rational game behaviors are not universally accepted by sport teams and I am confident that the consistent high performers out there do not accept these behaviors as their best norms. Ethics and Virtue are a huge and necessary part of a society, medicine, even war, etc. The absence of ethics  and virtue is vice and deceit which has decimated societies and cultures as it will sport and soccer, too, if not called out.   

  2. frank schoon, January 15, 2019 at 12:48 p.m.

    We don't live in a perfect world, but anything with humans you will expect foibles and failings. I'd say get over it. When you put your foot on the field ,you have to accept those aspects, like time delay, injury delay,etc and all those little tricks, protesting to the ref...etc. All these things are within the rules of the game and neither can these aspects  be measured or quantified in order to act upon. Besides, all these things  balances out in the end. It all depends whose ox is being gored or better lets say "what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
    When I get on the  field I accept is as part of the game, just like I accept refs will make mistakes...Live with it.
    Let me ask those coaches who are appalled or complain about these tricks , are you as upset as the other coach when his player is blatantly fouled and perhaps hurt by one of your players. Will you show the anger ,like the other coach, at your player. No ,ofcourse not, you keep your mouth shut and don't want to make it worse and influence the ref on his decision for you know you're on the wrong side. Or how 'bout the time wasting  near the end of the game by making a substitution.
    I'm more upset at players having to wear stupid little patches on their jersey, saying "respect"'s that working out during the heat of the game...
    Or these stupid banners saying 'No to Racism", like as if there are any racist in the crowd they will automatically lose their racists feelings.. I would like to see this PC garbage  stricken from the soccer field. I accept soccer the way it is , warts and all, unless some can how to deal with these tricks during the game...

  3. Kevin Leahy, January 15, 2019 at 6:21 p.m.

    Sorry Frank, I don't accept the anything to win mentality of the players on the field. It makes the game ugly. Just because an opponent is less talented or not fast enough to keep up, fouling should not be the way to keep up. I never minded losing to someone that, was better and worked for it. The professionals do influence the players from the bottom on up. We should strive for more in all walks of life!

  4. frank schoon replied, January 15, 2019 at 7:25 p.m.

    Kevin, sorry for you to take the most extreme side of this discussion,  the Tonya Harding side- anything to win. That is not what this is about. We have laws, rules and a ref  to call the game to make sure everyone follows the's that simple. But there are aspects of the game that are tough to call or make a judgement for the ref to decide upon and therefore players  take advantage, which is human nature . The only way for a ref to be able to call one of these aspects is to have placed in the player's brain a chip in order for the ref to be able to sense what the player was really thinking at that moment. That scenario won't happen or maybe in another 50 years so...
    Soccer reflects society and I'm sure many of those who criticize  about taken advantage  of these aspects likewise have never have lied or cheated or bend the truth a little on their income tax forms. So lets not get to virtuous, here....just mentioning one of those aspect on a societal level...
    Suppose you saw one of your teammates or one your kids on the team  tripped or kicked  an opponent behind the refs back causing an injury. No one else saw it but you, will you tell the ref. during stoppage of play your player caused it .  Or one your kids scored a goal in an off-sides position while the ref missed the call, will you complain it was offsides, or will you keep your mouth shut .
    I was an attacking player  always busy in trying way to beat my opponent and score, and therefore I was usually on the receiving end of most of these shananigans by defenders. I like competition and in one game as a coach , I took one of my players off the field for the other team had only 10 players;  I didn't feel it was fair to play them with a man advantage.
    In sum, I don't like to bring in values and morality into the game. The moment you enter the field to play you come with the implicit understanding that you accept the rules of how the game is played, nothing more , nothing less, and just leave at that. 

  5. Bob Ashpole, January 16, 2019 at 2:10 p.m.

    I agree with the "code of conduct" except for the last point. Killing time through good positioning and play is an important tactic in team invasion-type sports. In soccer it was more important before substitutions were permitted, but it still is important and fair. I myself, rather attack, but that is a matter of taste, not ethics.

    I would also add "no professional fouls", because that is misconduct even when not punished. Not carding professional fouls has a negative impact on play.

    As for sending spies to an opponent for a match, I too think that is unethical. It is like stealing a playbook from opposing teams in American football. The spies are trying to learn the opponent's game plan for the upcoming match. It isn't banned under match rules, but then it is not something that happens in a match. These are matters governed by club and league rules, where the authority should reside not with game day match officials. 

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, January 16, 2019 at 2:16 p.m.

    On this website and only this website what I type is altered by automatic spellcheck. Even though on my MS operating system keyboard settings, I have always had autocorrect disabled. I apoligize for the confusion these unwanted corrections create.

  7. frank schoon replied, January 16, 2019 at 3:47 p.m.

    LOL, tell me about the is not only spell check but word changes as well...
    I don't know if there are laws specifically dealing with spying on another teams. But really, I think this is a tempest in a teapot. You can't compare this to Football where plays are set ahead of time. Soccer is too fluid, more creative, more sponteaneous than Football. The only thing I could possibly  envision is  working on a new dead ball play or tricky corner but for the rest , I didn't know what there is to spy upon . There are really no secrets left out there.
    And as far as professional fouls, players do get yellow or red for it, so I don't see a problem there.
     I don't like bringing in value judgements and mores that could make the game even more difficult to call..This game has been around for over a hundred years with necessary changes to accommodate. It has done pretty well. The anything I would like to see enforced is NO grabbing of jerseys. 

  8. Bob Ashpole, January 16, 2019 at 4:11 p.m.

    A big reason that I quite watching MLS years ago was Houston built their game plan around professional fouls (grabbing jerseys usually) in the opponents half to break up attacks, because MLS referees would not card professional fouls in the opponents half. It made for a horribly boring and frustrating match. Of course Houston fans who weren't actually fans of soccer loved it.

  9. frank schoon replied, January 16, 2019 at 5:30 p.m.

    I wouldn't want to watch a team pulling this garbage either....That also is a reflection of the coach. Who was he?.
     Football's Greatest International Teams .. Brazil 1982 - YouTube
    You will like this and the philosophy of Tele Santana about not fouling but play beautiful soccer

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, January 17, 2019 at 8:39 a.m.

    Dominic Kinnear, a former back from Scotland who came to the US in 1989 to play professionally  after failing to get any playing time in Scotland. He also had 54 US caps in 1990 "warmup" era when we were not qualifying (as hosts) but wasn't selected for the finals.

  11. frank schoon replied, January 17, 2019 at 9:43 a.m.

    Bob,As long as I have coached kids, I have never brought elemenst of how to cheat ,especially shirt grabbing..If I ever see one my kids do that, he's is going to hear from me in a very stern manner. I have a theory on this type of stuff and that is coaches who were not very good players will tend to lean more towards questionable activities, coaches who were nice players displayed good skills are more prone to teaching the beauty of the game... If you really love the game,the beauty, the flair of skills, then I can't see how anyone would bring in this garbage.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, January 17, 2019 at 10:15 a.m.

    Frank, thanks for the link. I missed out on the 82 cup as I had just entered the military and was moving around the country during that time, so somehow I missed knowing about Santana. Apparently there isn't a lot about him published in English, but I am looking now. The first thing I found was an article about his meeting with Cruyff before the club world cup final in 1992. Inspiring. If only Soccer America could have interviewed him about playing and coaching.

  13. frank schoon replied, January 17, 2019 at 10:36 a.m.

    So True Bob. Just watch Brazil play '82WC ,I took videos of those games, Youtube does have some of the games. Brazil was at its purest, so beautiful . It is like they played with white gloves on, the movement off the ball, the passing, etc. I think when you watch WC'74 with Holland and Brazil ' will see the best soccer ever played. And if you can, watch Yugoslavia of WC'74 to see technicians, especially DZAJIC. It's after '82 that I lost my charm for Brazil. Because of that loss to Italy due to stupid mistake ,a square ball passed in front of the penalty area that was intercepted by the Italian  Rossi, Brazil to play decided change from playing the beautiful game and become hardnosed...And that is why I'm no longer a fan of Brazilian soccer.....
    That is why the square pass was outlawed when Rinus Michels was coach of Ajax. As a matter of fact, it was standard rule by dutch teams in the 60's and 70's to never make that pass. Wim Rysbergen the former Cosmos star, who played for Feyenoord when he first got on board attempted that pass and he was yelled at by his own teammates to never try that again. Cruyff , likewise taught his players to not pass square for if the pass is intercepted 3 players will have been beaten. But ,today, the square pass is executed all of the time, like it is nothing....This is why Cruyff states that good soccer has been watered down due to not 
    following the principles of soccer.....

  14. frank schoon replied, January 17, 2019 at 10:39 a.m.

    Bob, talk about interviews, where's TATA's and JK's...???????  I want to hear JK's opinions on the current soccer, MLS, and other aspects...

  15. Bob Ashpole, January 17, 2019 at 11:04 p.m.

    I don't think you willl see what you're looking for Frank any time soon. His statements that appeared in the press last year are strictly limited to his wanting another coaching job, this time for a men's national team that expects to finish in the top 4 at the 2022 finals. That is a very short list wish. I just don't see anyone being unguarded with the press under those circumstances. 

  16. frank schoon replied, January 18, 2019 at 8:10 a.m.

    Bob, first of all has SA even tried to contact him, or for that matter why hasn’t he even been interviewed when he was here for the past 2 years....he has put Atlanta on the map and there has never been any interviews with him. Sorry, I don’t buy that excuse, he can be interviewed about his American experience. 
    It just like JK after being fired there was never an interview with him....

  17. Bob Ashpole, January 18, 2019 at 4:19 p.m.

    Sorry I wasn't more specific. I was talking about JK, not Tata.

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