It’s one of football’s most enduring two-handers. The names change, as do the teams, and the setting can be anywhere from a muddy pitch in a park to the sport’s most imposing cathedrals, but the script remains more or less the same: a buzzing young tyro nutmegs a grizzled old stopper en route to planting the ball in the back of the net.
Then, trotting back to the centre-circle, the fresh-faced lad has his ears singed and the beaming smile wiped off his face, as the veteran leans in close to deliver the snarled threat: “Do that to me again, son, and I’ll break your f***in’ leg.”
The yarn might be apocryphal or it might be gospel truth but it doesn’t really matter; it still gets to the essence of the notion that it’s wrong, unsporting even, to humiliate or embarrass your opponent any more than is strictly necessary.
To which my instinctive response has always been: that’s completely – to use the correct technical term – nuts.
If the end objective is a goal, or even just the besting of your opponent, then it seems to me that – within the laws of the game – the means are not only justified but, if accomplished with an extra dash of panache, actually deserving of bonus points.
So to that young ‘un who is now wondering how best to respond to the potential loss of a limb, I say: do it again, son, and again and again and again, until yer man – like all those hapless hatchet men who were famously given “twisted blood” by Georgie Best – is the only one left without a leg to stand on.
As you might have guessed, these thoughts have been prompted by the mini-furore surrounding Lionel Messi’s penalty against Celta Vigo last Sunday. For those who’ve been so wrapped up in the drama of the election campaign that they somehow missed it – by the way, how are you two getting on? - the basic storyline can be easily related (or, better still, viewed online).
With Barcelona leading Celta Vigo 3-1 at the Nou Camp, Messi stepped up to take a penalty but, having sent the goalkeeper on his way by giving him the eyes, he then stunned the crowd by declining to shoot, instead opting to tap the ball sideways for the in-rushing Luis Suarez – beating Neymar to the punch – to send poor Sergio Alvarez the wrong way for a second time in the one spot kick.
But while the Nou Camp roared its approval, others looking on from afar were less than impressed, most notably our own Eamon Dunphy who embarked on a characteristic diatribe, describing the penalty routine as “bolloxology” for which “there should be no place in the arsenal of a great player.”
Extending the rap sheet, the Dunph charged that what Messi had done “totally lacked class...he let himself down big time...he let the game down...you don’t mess with the game...the spirit of the game is bigger than the written rule...it was cheap and self-indulgent...and none of the great players in the past would ever have dreamt of doing anything like that.”
Of course, with that final point Eamon managed to perpetrate a pretty spectacular own goal, since, in the very act of passing his penalty, Messi was channeling none other than Johan Cruyff, the Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands legend who, not surprisingly, was only too happy to salute a long-delayed sequel to his own original creation: “How could it be a lack of respect?” he asked, seemingly genuinely baffled by the criticism. “This is football – something different, entertaining. That’s what football is: a game, a pastime.”
Something which has largely been overlooked in the debate is that what Messi did was risky. And therefore brave.
To begin with, taking a penalty in an orthodox fashion is never a straightforward affair. For the same reason, the stubbornly persistent view that a penalty shoot-out is “a lottery” seems entirely wrong-headed to me.
A penalty is, in truth, a test of skill and nerve – which, when you think about it, is not a bad definition of what the whole sport is, or should be, about. And, in adding an extra component to the kicker v keeper bottom line, Messi and company were hardly making life easier for themselves.
Get that wrong and, as Thierry Henry and Robert Pires found out, you can end up with copious egg on your face. For the same reason that the ‘panenka’ – the chipped penalty – is such an audacious and wonderful thing (when it comes off, natch), the Messi/Suarez variation deserves praise not just for its novelty value but because it implicitly put faith in the idea that panache could vanquish peril.
People also seem to have forgotten that the awarding of a spot-kick is designed to penalise the offending team. Hence the name. So, unless the penalty has been unfairly awarded, the idea of sympathy being extended to the side which has actually broken the rules – while brickbats are hurled at the side which hasn’t - is surely to turn the whole logic of sport on its head.
It’s worth remembering too that there are plenty of things routinely happening on football pitches – from diving to trying to get an opponent sent off to malicious, career-threatening tackles – which are far more deserving of criticism than a player with the wit and imagination to invent or, at least, recycle a wildly entertaining way with which to make the opposition pay the penalty.
Recalling his own impudence from the spot for Ajax in 1982, Johann Cruyff noted that no-one had dreamed of doing such a thing back then. And there’s the key: it took one of the foremost exponents of total football to dream it up, to take the game to a place where functionality could give way to fantasy – yet, crucially, without compromising the result.
So, yes, give me the dreamers of dreams, the movers and shakers and audacious penalty takers, for they are one of the main reasons we are still entitled to call it the beautiful game. There’s nothing at all wrong with exalting ‘the good pro’ with his hard yards, team work, 110 per cent commitment and fabled moral courage but, please, not if the corollary means denigrating the entertainers.
As for those who fill the ranks of what Bob Dylan once called ‘the anti-happiness league’, I’m tempted to conclude that the big lesson of the past week might be that, like politics and politicians, and christianity and christians, professional football is simply too important to be left in the hands of professional footballers.
Especially the ex-pros.
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