Soccer’s a loser by letting serial sinners like Suarez escape so lightly

Okay, I know this would probably be more appropriate on the back page, but I haven’t got one. And, besides, now and again there’s a sporting incident that stirs such rage, it becomes front-page news.

I won’t get too technical, for fear of offending those who’d rather watch a telly ad than a soccer game or paint drying in preference to a cricket match, because not everyone is consumed by the passion sport generates (personally, I draw the line at darts, because in my humble estimation anything vaguely termed ‘sport’ requires a six-pack rather than a beer gut).

But let’s kick on with events of last week involving a high-profile soccer star – one even tipped as a potential English Premiership’s Player of the Year for his goal-scoring prowess – who was suddenly siezed by a cannibal lust to bite a chunk out of an opposing defender.

Even in a game where spitting (or ‘gobbing’ as it is known) in someone’s face, hair-pulling, genital-grabbing, eye-gouging and stamping are common currency, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez literally trying to make a meal out of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic was a tad over the top.

So shocking was the incident, I almost felt sorry for the London club, until I came to my senses.

It wasn’t just me who was incensed, either. The overwhelming majority of witnesses were, too, include the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who’s probably better acquainted with the Eton Wall Game than the so-called People’s Game.

And it was no use Suarez’s cronies claiming that, as a Uruguayan, he was culturally programmed to consume beef, because you simply don’t order the right arm of an opponent, a la tartar, in the middle of a football match.

VERDICT WITH BITE: How one newspaper judged Suarez's attack on Chelsea's Ivanovich

VERDICT WITH BITE: How one newspaper judged Suarez’s attack on Chelsea’s Ivanovich

Besides, the odious South American is a serial sinner. He’d bitten a player before during his days with the Dutch club, Ajax, and, last season, served an eight-match ban for racially abusing Manchester United captain, Patrice Evra.

In any other workplace the man would be summarily sacked – even charged with attempted grievous bodily harm – but not pro soccer. He’s far too important to be shown the door and, besides, a host of other obscenely rich clubs would queue to sign him without qualms.

Therefore one can safely assume, the word ‘morality’ doesn’t exist in soccer’s lexicon, despite its pretence at offering a ‘sporting’ example to kids who aspire to be like their icons.

So, instead, Suarez has been fined by his club (who aren’t saying how much of his £200,000-a-week wages he’ll forfeit), made a wishy-washy apology and announced he’d be prepared to plead guilty to the offence – as witnessed by half-a-billion telly viewers worldwide – so long
as it didn’t carry anything more severe than a three-match suspension.

Such ignoble contrition is staggering, but additionally so was Suarez’s plea-bargain chutzpah. Had it become legal precedent, safely assume the next axe-murder appearing before a judge would say, ‘I’ll cough up, m’lud, but only in return for six points on my driving licence.’

As it is, the arrogant psycho has been hit with a 10-match ban, which – surprise, surprise! – many in soccer’s blinkered milieu think is too harsh. One can only but wonder which part of Planet Zog they inhabit.

Still, the case got me thinking whether professional sport actually is what it says on the packaging or should it be redefined as ‘sportainment’: a fusion of roughly – an apt word under the circumstances – acting according to vaguely-interpreted rules and pure theatre, with the principal players dolled up in fancy dress?

Because today, soccer and most of pro sports are big business, where mega-bucks are at stake on and off the field of combat (and I use the word combat deliberately, since sometimes it’s not far off being as gladiatorial as anything presented to the baying mob in Nero’s Coliseum).

So, let’s not be fooled by the brusque handshakes foisted on participants before battles commence. If this rite of farce is intended to rekindle memories of bygone Corinthian spirit it fails miserable once the boots fly in.

In reality, it is as meaningless as that other, equally hollow sentiment, ‘Respect’, bandied around as a shoddy veneer to conceal the genuine enmity many players – and fans – feel for opposite numbers, whether it reflects colour, racial, nationalistic prejudice or plain, old envy.

So, let’s call pros what they are…‘sportainers’, because often – following best Hollywood practice – they are spoilt, money-grubbing, mercenary brats, vastly overpaid, over-weaned, overrated and over-mollycoddled.

Calling these exponents ‘sportsmen’, then, stretches credulity a goal-kick too far.

MUZZLE HIM? Could this be the answer to curbing Suarez's penchant for make a meal out of opponents?

MUZZLE HIM? Could this be the answer to curbing Suarez’s penchant for make a meal out of opponents?

And, of course, if these demi-gods err – on or off field – their warts and all are somehow excused, so long as they remain winners.

Cheating, though, doesn’t merely extend to soccer, because many other pro ‘sportainments’ have been similarly tarnished…cricket (‘sledging’ and match-fixing), horse racing (doping and race fixing), boxing (bribes to ‘throw’ fights), cycling (using illicit stimulants), snooker (match fixing) and – despite London 2012 being a ‘clean’ Games – many past Olympiads have been tainted by the spectre of drugs.

In rare instances, those who’ve gone far beyond the boundaries of acceptable misconduct have been justly banned for respectably swingeing terms, some for life and deservedly so.

But the People’s Game – not than most people can afford £70-plus for a Premiership match ticket – seems to be in a league of its own by punishing multi-millionaire miscreants with nothing harsher than a financial slap on the wrist and a sojourn in the sin bin.

The quality of mercy is anything but strained, because this ‘sportainment’ sold out to Mammon yonks ago and every participant – from legislators (look at FIFA’s disgraceful antics), to club owners, coaches and agents – have their snouts firmly in the cash trough.

Not least of all are the ‘stars’, professing undying fealty to a club and its faithful as their moolah mounts up.

But the next time you see a goal-scorer rush to the stands and kiss his team badge in an expression of undying allegiance, remember that in a week’s time he could be doing the same to another side’s crest.

And it’s not that I’m a spoilsport. Far from it (ask that sainted sports widow, Mrs. Ash). In fact I was a sportswriter for more years than I care to remember, witnessing games I wouldn’t inflict on my worst enemy.

‘At least we’re paid to watch this c**p,’ I once said to a colleague during one alleged match, which prompted a fan who’d overheard the remark to throw his meat pie at me (for the record, it was much tastier than that dished up on the field).

If nothing else, it underscored that fervent loyalties do exist in the game, if only on the terraces.

So, while I remain tantalised by the vision of 22 players knocking a ball round a football pitch, I prefer it portrayed as genuine sport – which is why I go to the local park on a Sunday morning to watch a kids’ joust.

I salute Spain’s soccer matadors – but, sorry, no apologies

Some of my detractors – not uncommon for we who live and perish by the pen – have questioned my indictment of Spain’s footballing matadors (see Blog: 28.6.12), when I called them boring in their penalty shoot-out, semi-final win over Portugal.

‘Eat your words,’ demanded a Spanish amigo, offering me two slices of bread to sandwich them in.

‘Rubbish after what happened last night,’ emailed another this a.m.

Well, well, isn’t hindsight a marvellous thing, as I’m sure Spain’s inspirational coach, Vicente Del Bosque (now Marquis Del Bosque), would agree. Because clearly, against the Portuguese, he wasn’t exactly over la luna with his with his team’s stuttering performance, when they only really arrived at the party in extra time.

Last night, against Italy, Spain was a different side…still ‘tiki-taka’, ‘tippy-tapas’ in their passing, only this time sublimely potent, their tempo in overdrive, their resolve tuned to diamond hardness. Iniesta was pure magic, fully deserving of the tag ‘Player of the Tournament’; Xavi and Fabregas threaded balls through the eye of a needle – or at least the Italians’ massed, misfiring barricade – at will; and, as if to rub it in, ‘strikerless’ Spain finished playing two men up front, with both Torres and Mata scoring.

It couldn’t get any better and, truly, Spain and their avuncular boss have re-written soccer’s coaching manual, just as the Brazilians did back in 1970.

HAIL THE CHIEF: Del Bosque, Spain’s inspirational coach

As one TV pundit noted, ‘The match should have been played with two balls – that way Italy would have had the chance to get their feet on one.’

The final, lopsided as it was and luckless Italy down to 10 men on the hour – not that even 20 would have made an iota of difference – graced one of the finest Euro competitions ever…on and off the pitch.

Which brings me nicely to another point:-

So where were the monkey chants and anti-Semitic rants from the terraces that we were all warned to expect, especially in Ukraine, painted by BBC Panorama as a nation of hooligans and racists, eager to disembowel visiting fans at the click of a flick-knife?

And, talking about eating words, will Sol Campbell have a nibble on his, after warning England supporters, ‘Stay at home; watch it on TV. Don’t risk it because you could end up coming back in a coffin.’

As it turned out, Ukraine was ultra fan-friendly. What trouble occurred was mainly in Poland and perpetrated almost exclusively by travelling supporters.

The only downside I see to the unexpected success of Euro 2012 is that it will embellish the reputation of Michel Platini, a hero as a French midfield general and a zero as an egotistical soccer administrator.

His desire to turn the event into an 24-team, international-style, Champions League clouds a personal, political agenda, milking extra broadcasting rights, limiting host cities’ expenditure on stadiums and infrastructure, and – most of all – positioning himself further as pretender to Sepp Blatter’s FIFA throne.

Personally, if it has to be a Frenchman to succeed the devious Swiss, I’d rather see the petit, perfidious and recently-unemployed Nicholas Sarkozy get the job. Anyone but Platini.

Football? More like ‘bore-ball’ from winners Spain

For a normally vibrant, garrulous nation, don’t the Spanish produce yawningly tedious football, effective though it is in terms of results?

It might be brimming with neat, intricate triangles of passes which the father of geometry, Euclid, would have applauded. But – notwithstanding the rare, mazy dribble from Iniesta or, still less, one of his team-mates – last night’s Euro 2012 semi final against Portugal was the soccer equivalent of Nitrazepam, my recommended cure for insomnia.

In fact, I’ve seen more tantalising fare dished up in my grandkid’s X-Box Pro Evolution soccer videos. And, at least the inadequates of England had viewers on the edge of their sofas occasionally.

All right, all right! I know Spain won, but how woefully so for reigning World and European champions. And they had to rely on a Russian roulette penalty shoot-out to do it.

CHEERING FANS: But Spain’s stars deserved jeers for their yawning display

By that time Portugal, who provided a smattering of genuine thrills in the first of the three halves – I count extra time as the third – were looking for the bus to the knackers’ yard, so fatigued were they.

Their man-mountain of a centre-back, Bruno Alves, whose spot-kick hit the woodwork and allowed Cesc Fabregas to clinch Spain’s win, was like a punch-drunk heavyweight praying to be carried from the ring. And why wasn’t the still animated Ronaldo allowed a crack?

Maybe had Portugal a striker other than the lumbering Almeida, who couldn’t hit a barn-door with a shotgun from five paces, it might have ended in tears not cheers for the metronomic Spanish.

Still, for a feisty, little nation of 10.5M people – a quarter of Spain’s population – I take my baseball cap off to the Portuguese.

Vicente Del Bosque’s side tested their goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, just once in the first 90 minutes, which underpins why Spain has scored one goal or fewer in three of their five Euro 2012 games, and they won the 2010 World Cup thanks to four consecutive 1-0 victories.

No wonder 62% of respondents in an on-line pole voted the Spanish ‘boring’.

Maybe all that matters to their coach and automatons are results.

If that were the case with Man City, Man United, Chelsea or Spurs, the terraces of the Etihad, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane would be graveyards.

So, roll on the shove-ha’penny season. At least we’re guaranteed some thrills.