By Mihir Bose,
Roberto Mancini’s gesture of waving a red card from the bench when one of his players is tackled in the hope, perhaps, of inducing the referee to send the opponent off, has once again raised the question of culture. Is there something special that may be called the English football culture, which just does not allow such behaviour? Indeed, that considers it to be reprehensible?
True, the odd bit of cheating, which is more like gamesmanship, is part of the tradition of football. This includes claiming a corner or a throw when you know very well the last touch was by your foot and not that of your opponent. But the Mancini gesture is something on an entirely different scale. This is felt to be morally wrong – he is trying to influence a referee, to send a player off in what may prove a really game changing decision.
It is interesting that the Wigan manager Roberto Martinez lectured the Italian about the difference in football culture between England and the continent on such issues. Now, you may say that Martinez, who has been much longer in this country than the City boss, was trying to show off, if not be a little clever himself. But what is interesting is Martinez is not the only one to believe that there is a special English culture that is very different to the football culture in other parts of the world. What is more, it is a culture that needs to be preserved and accepted.
The whole incident reminded me about what Uwe Rösler, who now manages Brentford, feels. Let me remind you of what he told me when we spoke shortly after he had taken over at Brentford.
Rösler, a product of the old communist East German state, came to England in 1994, some years after the wall had come down, and what struck him, he says, is that English football was honest. “I always say that. You get what you see. There’s no spitting or no dirty tricks. It’s like two boxers saying to each other the guy who stays longest wins.”
He recalled how in Germany, “sometimes you went down, you tried to get a free kick. That was natural, it was called clever and that belonged to the game, belonged to the tactic, I don’t know how you want to call it. When I came over here (to join Manchester City ) and I did it once or twice, the players told me and also the manager, Brian Horton. They came to me and said very clearly you do that not one more time.”
Rösler says he quickly saw “there was some justice in the group and from the Manager and I took that on board and obviously that helped me a lot. When I went back to Germany, I wanted to bring that in. I didn’t like what I saw then because too many people were just diving around.”
Rösler says in his four and a half years in English football, he imbibed this higher football culture from England and he is convinced that, “foreigners coming here now, a lot of them will adapt to the English culture. And that means English culture will, in turn, influence world football culture.”
Great as it is for those of us brought up in England to hear those words, I am not sure that this aspect of English football is that easily exportable. Recall how many people, not just Argentinians, reacted to the Maradona’s hand of God goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. In English eyes nothing could be more reprehensible. But in the eyes of many, this was just street cleverness by a very street-smart Argentine. And the way Mancini has reacted to the rebukes for his behaviour suggests that he also feels he is being clever and smart, not unethical.
Therein lies a fundamental difference in the attitude to the game. I fear no amount of mingling of players and coaches from all over the world in these isles will bridge that difference. The English will always go on believing that, while they may not have the ball skills of the Latins, they have a superior football culture when it comes to the behaviour of players on the field. And players like Uwe Rösler, who fell in love with English football as a child – yes even in East Germany that was possible – will make the English feel better by saying how much better this football culture is. But many others who come to these shores will easily resist the superior English ways.
We have to live with these cultural differences and recognise that not everyone accepts that playing football, or for that matter any sport, also always means accepting a higher moral purpose.
Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose
Mihir Bose’s book The Spirit of the Game has just been published by Constable and Robinson.