Let's be honest, footballers are cheats.
The third episode in the World Series of Spain - El Clásico III: This Time It's Hilarious - drove the English media in to a tailspin of handwringing, chin-stroking, tut-tutting and self-aggrandising piousness. Newspapers decried "the Game of Shame"; radio pundits thumped their tubs; and Andy Townsend, co-commentator for English television, remarked on the sheer goddamned pride he felt that none of this diving, whining or simulation blighted our game "back home".
"Back home", of course, being the dear old English Premier League, a noble competition fought between gentleman gladiators, and the last bastion of Corinthian values in the face of insidious foreign chicanery. (Corinth, of course, being a small town just south of Bicester.) So it was a special kind of joy, then, to see Craig Gardner -- as English an Englishman as ever wore a bowler hat and fell down the apples and pears -- dismissed for simulation inside the first half-hour of Birmingham visit to Wolves. Anything your febrile derbies can do, Spain, our local dust-ups can do better. But with a side-helping of hypocrisy, and a healthy sprinkling of self-righteousness.
Not that this is Gardner's fault, of course. He was just doing what footballers, even the English ones, do all the time: dive, simulate, con, deceive, mislead, and cheat. We were also treated, over the weekend, to English pastiches of almost all of the sins of the Spanish Old Firm: Wayne Rooney's usual happy blend of querulant profanity; John Terry's brave roll back into the
theatre of combat field of play after a brutal assault slight knock deposited him beyond the touchline; and - my personal favourite - Jack Wilshere having the gall to grasp his face in disbelief, outraged at the official's ludicrous suggestion that The Future Of English Football had tugged on Michael Carrick's leg.
We all saw the replay, Jack. You did.
Now, this is fish-in-a-barrel stuff; we know that English footballers, like all footballers, cheat as much as they can get away with, and then a little bit more. Indeed, it's expected of them. Adam Johnson's exclusion from England's 2010 World Cup squad was blamed, in some quarters, on his failure to go to ground after a shirt-tug in a pre-tournament friendly, while the high-profile swan-dives of Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard passed each time with nary a mutter. Less spectacularly, but much more frequently, I can't remember the last time the ball went out of play without every single player on either side sticking their arms up in the air like children desperate to impress their teacher. Even the poor galumphing lummox who's shinned the ball out of play turns round with a raised hand and a contorted face, shrieking with entitlement. Then, when denied, he launches a volley of curses to the heavens, castigating the very gods themselves for their caprice.
Obviously, the throw-in thing is minor, but it has a telling resonance. Not only because it sometimes works - Steven Gerrard (him again) once kicked a ball into the face of a Blackburn Rovers defender, turned to the ref bleating for a handball, and got the free-kick - but because it's symbolic of the childish pettiness that is often mistaken for professionalism at the top of this beautiful, ugly game. Because let's be clear, if you know the ball's come off you, but appeal anyway, you're cheating. (Alternatively, if the ball bounces off you but you think it's your throw-in, you're an idiot.) You're making false representations to the referee in the hope of influencing the decision; a decision that, if you're playing for Stoke or with a Neville, can be better than a corner. The only difference between that and a Sergio Busquets special is that you're less likely to end up with grass in your lying mouth.
What's interesting, however, is the persistent and constant elision of English deception from the English media's presentation of the English game. While the amount of moralising that followed the clásico was due in no small part to the waves of hype that had preceded it, there nevertheless remains a stubborn refusal to admit that this might be something that is a problem with all football, not just other football. This attitude finds its nadir with Steven Gerrard (yes, alright, him again. But does any player so neatly encapsulate English football? None that I can think of), who once told the Daily Mail, apparently with a straight face, "I don't think there's anything worse than a player diving when no-one's been anywhere near him. It does ruin the game".
So why does the English game pretend that Gerrard, Owen, Ashley Young and Francis Lee don't do what they clearly do do (or did do. Dooby do-be-do). Lacking the resources to embark on a serious anthropological investigation into the dark places of the English psyche -- a strange, musty place that smells faintly of stale tea and dried blood -- we are limited to wild and generalised speculation, which is much more fun anyway. So let's go with this as a suggestion: English football, in the face of its own inadequacies, avoids confronting those inadequacies by proclaiming its own moral superiority.
Bear with me during this bit. As one or two of you may have noticed, England spent the last weekend renewing its own sense of self, uniting as a nation to celebrate the blessed union of two insanely and insensitively rich people, thereby ensuring that the country remains a class-riddled joke of a democracy for the foreseeable future. (Other versions of the happy day are available.) Planes flew, horses trotted, dresses were scrutinised, hats were mocked, "Jerusalem" was misinterpreted again; it was all that England is and does. But the Royal Wedding, above all, was a parable, told by England to England, about the greatness of England. A self-centred elegy; ego raising a glass to a mirror. Well done, England, for being English. Carry on.
There is a parallel, in that the same is true of English football's tales of the self: they are stories of superiority and eminence. Except, of course, that the royal couple got the day to themselves; they weren't up against a Spanish couple who dominated the altar, ended up with 59% of the guests, bossed the hymn selection 22 to 6, and ultimately ran away with the ring, the reception, and the maid of honour. A tale of natural eminence doesn't last long in the face of the losses that have defined the England team since, in one way or another (leaving 1966 aside), the end of World War Two.
So English football's echo chamber chose to dominate the abstract, moral aspect of football instead, safe in the knowledge that you can't really lose where the only test is assertion; not if you're loud enough, at any rate. But not for England the genuine moral questions that surround football - the alleged trafficking of young children from Africa, or the symbiotic relationship of the game with persons and companies of dubious ethical provenance - and not for England a self-examination of its own troubling relationship with on-field violence. No, the really important issues: England's players don't dive, they don't feign injury, and they don't wave imaginary cards. That's the real quiz. Never mind that they do, or that they do, or that they don't need to, being perfectly willing and able to order referees around with cursewords and glower. They don't, and they don't, and they don't. Whatever England tells itself three times is true.