Wrestling with beauty and the beast
LONDON: Even by the hyperbolic standards of English football the opening skirmishes of the new season have provided a dizzying overdose of the good, the bad and the downright ugly sides of what was once referred to as the beautiful game.
The past week alone has provided a tumultuous microcosm of a season that is not even three months old.
Arsenal’s incredible 7-5 League Cup victory over Reading having trailed 4-0, not to mention Chelsea’s 5-4 defeat of Manchester United in the same competition, illustrated exactly why English football is so addictive.
Luis Suarez’s “pantomime villain” performance for Liverpool in last weekend’s Merseyside derby, complete with his comical self-mocking dive in front of Everton boss David Moyes, added a much-needed dash of humour to a day that ended with another racism saga unfolding and more on-field theatrics.
Chelsea’s 3-2 Premier League defeat at home to Manchester United last Sunday veered from being a “classic” of its time to yet more ammunition for those who believe English football is hurtling out of control into the abyss.
Mark Clattenburg, one of England’s elite referees, sent off two Chelsea players, the second, Fernando Torres, for apparent diving and was later accused of using “inappropriate language” directed at Nigerian John Obi Mikel.
The cake was egged still further by a nasty injury to a pitch-side steward as Chelsea’s fans vented their anger at United’s celebrations of their late winner.
A Football Association investigation into the so-far unsubstantiated allegations of racist language by Clattenburg to Mikel has begun.
In the same week, two England players were amongst 12 people charged with violent conduct by Serbia police after a mass brawl following a Euro Under-21 qualifier last month.
The match ended in near anarchy with the England player Danny Rose allegedly subjected to monkey taunts from the crowd before and after being sent off.
All this with Chelsea skipper and former England captain John Terry in the middle of a four-match ban for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand a year ago – a case that has threatened to poison the racial harmony that the English game has achieved after the bigoted days of days gone by.
Such has been the fall-out from Terry’s drawn-out case that several players, Manchester United Rio Ferdinand the most prominent, have openly boycott the anti-racism campaign Kick It Out and raised the possibility of a breakaway players’ union.
Exciting as ever on the pitch, there appears to be a severe lack of harmony off it in the Premier League.
“There are things happening at the moment that don’t benefit the game,” Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas, who was in charge of Chelsea when Terry first crossed words with Ferdinand last October, said this week when discussing the latest round of ugly newspaper headlines.
“Things like that take the beauty away from the game and the headlines are replaced with the nasty part of the game.
“That is a pity because (the Chelsea v Man Utd) games were two great games of football.”
It is all a far cry from the few blissful summer weeks in London when sport was showcased in all its glory as Britain basked in the glow of one of the most successful Olympic and Paralympic Games ever staged.
It was a time when personal sacrifice, human endeavour and stories of triumph, adversity and mind-boggling feats of skill and athleticism gripped a worldwide audience.
While the doom-mongers predict that football is in danger of disappearing into the void, the game itself continues to thrive despite sky-high season ticket prices and the growing sense that millionaire players are removed from the “man in the street”.
Chelsea, for all their off-field sagas, have been a joy to watch on it with Roberto di Matteo’s emphasis on creativity rather than physicality winning plaudits.
Watching the likes of Spanish playmaker Juan Mata, Brazilian lightweight Oscar and Belgian Eden Hazard unpick Manchester United’s defence was a thing of beauty last Sunday.
Sadly, English football still has to conquer the beasts within if this season is to be remembered for the right reasons.