Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Let's kick token gestures out of football
Are T-shirts the new handshakes? Pre-match rituals are fast becoming a bigger story than the football itself. It is a worrying trend and a reflection of the modern game's love of a token gesture.
The Kick It Out campaign offered support for the Ferdinand family during the John Terry trial and subsequent Football Association investigation; the Ferdinand brothers' refusal to wear the T-shirts has marked their stance against the latter body.
Rio and Anton Ferdinand's feud with Terry is open warfare, but while their refusal could be written off as a personal issue several other players avoided wearing the shirts too. The problem is with the FA's tokenism in response to racism, according to Reading's Jason Roberts.
Former West Brom and Coventry striker Cyrille Regis, Roberts' uncle and a man who was in the vanguard of English football's pioneering generation of black players, has suggested that the refuseniks' problem is with the lenience of Terry's four-match ban in comparison with the eight received by Luis Suarez. Whatever happened to zero tolerance? It is a difficult question to answer, especially when we are in a tangle of T-shirts and handshakes.
Rio Ferdinand risked the wrath of Sir Alex Ferguson in his snub, and the manager's clear irritation about an act that flies in the face of his diktat of solidarity left him open to criticism himself. The accusations have come thick and fast. How could a 70-year-old multi-millionaire Scot know what it is like to face discrimination?
Having handled the Luis Suarez affair so calmly in the face of Liverpool's hysterically defensive reaction, including their own printed T-shirts, it looked as if he had got this one wrong. Ferguson does not like to have to go public on his actions, but he had to do so to lock up any talk of a continuing dispute.
Silly internet rumours had Rio being fined £220,000, a comparable sum to the amount Terry had to pay for his abuse of Anton, but there will be no such action. A stern word sufficed. Ferguson is not one to air dirty linen in public until everyone else is picking through the laundry basket. His concern is the team, in which Rio has played in distracted fashion in United's last two home matches.
Ferguson has spoken out repeatedly about Twitter culture, and has made a career of clipping the wings of those who make themselves, not the football team, the story. Ferdinand can compare notes with David Beckham, Roy Keane and many others on that score.
"The Manager", as his players call him, could also point to his own past, to his playing days, a time when he believed his spell at Rangers, the club he supported as a boy, was hampered by prejudice. In Ferguson's autobiography, he details that his marriage to Cathy caused him problems with Rangers' rigidly Protestant club culture. Years later, he could express those concerns, but he played in an era when turning the other cheek was the order of the day.
Now that he is in charge of club culture, Ferguson makes the rules, and Ferdinand broke them in going against his manager's public pronouncement on Friday.
Ferguson's stated belief that the union should be the mechanism through which Ferdinand should protest comes from his days as a youthful shop steward in a tool-making factory.
The dispute, though, has ended amicably enough, with Ferguson's admission that he "can understand his stance". Ferdinand has made his point. In turn, Ferguson has now made his own stance clear - on club discipline, at least. What both will agree on is that the wearing of T-shirts, armbands or otherwise will not cure racism, just as handshakes have not engendered 'respect' for fellow professionals and referees.
The next gesture panic will be along soon enough. Indeed, the focus this Sunday will probably centre on whether Ferdinand will shake the hand of Ashley Cole.
There was disappointment at White Hart Lane on Saturday when Andre Villas-Boas failed to prove a point to his previous employers as Chelsea franked their title credentials. However, Villas-Boas still looks happier at Tottenham Hotspur than he ever did at Chelsea.
The pressure of the overbearing Abramovich regime was a poor fit for him in that he is not one of life's diplomats. Roberto Di Matteo, a master of saying nothing, numbers diplomacy among his prime skills. He has negotiated the sharks' pool of egos at Stamford Bridge at a time when the club is being pilloried from all angles.
Villas-Boas, meanwhile, is at a place that looks better suited to him, where the politics are less fierce and the expectations definitely less exacting - Daniel Levy is not believed to have demanded the Champions League title just yet.
When Spurs scored the goals that took them level and then briefly in front, Villas-Boas was part of massed bear-hugging celebrations on the bench with assistant Steffen Freund and Portuguese compatriot Luis Martins. Such tactile moments were rare at Chelsea; so absent, in fact, that AVB was eventually mocked for suggesting that his players should bring their goal celebrations to the bench.
Now he looks far less isolated, a far cry from the manager frozen out by Chelsea's star system. He even shared a manly moment with Frank Lampard both before and after the game. "Grown men move on," Ferguson once said, and Villas-Boas now looks as if he can grow into being a Spurs manager.
With Chelsea doing just fine without him, it seems separate lives suit both parties.
Arsenal's decision to hire a private jet to travel to play Norwich City on Saturday has caused much merriment, especially when it was revealed they spent just 14 minutes in the air. They wouldn't have done that in Dennis Bergkamp's day.
A professional estimate places the cost of the journey, which took five minutes less than travelling from Euston to Arsenal on the London Underground, at around £10,000. Or, to put it in the context of football's money madness, that's the price of five top-range season tickets at the Emirates or 12 hours pay for Robin van Persie.
And travelling to Norwich is not easy, especially when the rail network - as ever - is disrupted, and a single carriageway takes up much of the road journey once Norfolk is reached. However, so poor was Arsenal's performance at Carrow Road that many fans would have wanted their players to be forced to walk back home.
Follow John Brewin on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN