Foreigners cheat

Dave Renton


One theme of Calcio, John Foot's superb new history of football in Italy is the universal scorn which all Italian fans have for referees. Fans do not just anger in response to one decision, they believe rather that every referee is bent. Not just one official in one game but every ref in every match. The Italian defeat at the last world cup was explained not at all by the team's complacency on the pitch but rather in terms of Italy's failure to wield more influence in Fifa, to have more power in the game.

The players too are raised in this culture: if rules are already malleable, then there is no harm in bending them further. A player is congratulated when they dive , praised to bring down an attacker, even at the expense of conceding a yellow card. At least a goal was saved. The Italian language even has terms for the virtuous foul, the necessary booking.

In the interviews he's done since, Foot has described the way in which by immersing himself in this culture, he actually came to despise it. Its completely shamelessness was alien to him. Watching Italy's last game: the petulance, the repeated diving, and above all Daniele de Rossi's assault on Brian McBride, it would be easy to feel the same.


But who are we to scorn?

There's a different double standard at work in Britain. We don't just deride Italian players as cheats, instead we hold that all foreigners dive: whether in Spain or France, America or South Korea, where very different cultures hold: different from the Italian and different from our own.

My grandmother used to claim that she spoke 'foreign': through her lifetime she'd packed up a smattering of words in French, Italian and so on. My grandmother was then puzzled to discover that while all foreigners spoke foreign, some had mastered different dialects of it. Foreigners were in fact incomprehensible. As she was to them. At that point, sensibly, she gave up - and turned back to English. Very slowly and loudly.

Enough commentators hold to Ron Atkinson's version of this rule.

We still hold to the vestiges of the idea that British people should and therefore do always obey the rules. If there's more spitting in the premiership, then the greater presence of 'foreigners' must be to blame.

CLR James' Beyond the Boundary describes what it was like to be brought up in Trinidad but in the British tradition in the early years of the last century: he learned through cricket a culture of always obeying the umpire, of duty and order, which reflected (as he was taught) the virtues of British society and of British colonial rule.

Cricket always embodied this idea to a greater extent than football - British cricket was the product, James argued in his memoir, of the middle years of the nineteenth century, of the public school system, of Matthew Arnold and W. G. Grace. Football derives its modern origins from a similar moment: it spread from England. The rules were recorded in the 1880s. The first successful teams were old boys' clubs from the public schools.

The difference is that the audience for football was working class from the start, and the players too (in much greater numbers than cricket). Football had by 1890 been largely captured by the working class: first in Britain and then when it spread internationally. This meant that British football was always more 'Italian' than British cricket: less moralistic, less hypocritical.

The workers had no civilising mission to spread.

But different sports are never the product of just one class culture: so the moral ban on 'cheating' continued to have some influence on the public values of the British game, even as the habit was condoned in practice.

For de Rossi's elbow read Michael Owen's ability to fall in the box as if shot. Foreigners cheat, we just bend the rules.



June 2006

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