English football has its adorable idiosyncrasies, that's why we
put up with love it. There's the cute wave of hysteria that drowns the country every two years (qualification allowing), and there's the endearing approval of low-grade violence that hides behind the euphemism "good honest challenge". But recently, one of the most quaint and peculiar of them all has been parading for our attention, a thing that "nobody likes to see": the waving of the imaginary card.
It's come up this time with a healthy does of comedy hypocrisy, as Roberto "No, I'm Fine, I'm Fine, I'm Fine" Mancini first publicly deplored Wayne Rooney advising the referee in the FA Cup then himself waved the forbidden non-object a few days later against Liverpool. He apologised, was castigated for his double standards by Steven "Diving Is The Worst Thing " Gerrard, and then did it again last night, as Maynor Figueroa denied Sergio Aguero a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Oh no, hang on, he was in the centre-circle.
Anyway, the lunacy of the hatred of the offending square of air is obvious. Ultimately, there is simply no difference between waving an imaginary card, and shouting, "f---ing book him, ref!" except for the extra opportunity for profanity it affords
John Terry whoever's making the demand audibly. Indeed, it's more efficient in some contexts. Mancini was on the sidelines -- maybe the referee wouldn't have heard him? Best wave, just in case.
There is a wider hypocrisy here, of course, which is the persistent division between Things That Foreigners Do, which are always bad, and Things That Englishers Do, which are always good. Helpfully, in this case, there's a trend towards a difference in action to highlight the general distinction: it's generally assumed that those notoriously hot-blooded foreign types are more likely to gesture, probably as a result of all the sunshine, nice wine, and over-elaborate cheese. Therefore: waving bad, shouting good. Calling the parentage of the official into question is optional, and should an Englisher be seen to wave the absent oblong, well, he probably picked that up in Spain.
There are two requests that must be made, without fail, in the wake of every such clamour. The first, following on from the above, is a plea for consistency from our media, our punditocracy, and ourselves. If you think waving an imaginary bounded space of inferrable colour is bad, then condemn its verbal equivalent with equal fervour. And the second follows on from this, and isn't so much a request as a question. Really? Does it matter that much that one footballer tells the referee that he thinks another footballer should be booked/dismissed/enter the tombola? It's not 'trying to get them sent off' in the same way that diving or feigning injury is; it's instruction, not deception. And if we think our referees are weak enough that a snarl from Wayne Rooney is enough to sway their minds, then the snarler really isn't the problem.
But don't worry. Help is at hand. Here are a list of things that exist in English football that are worse, in one way or another, than waving an imaginary card. In no particular order:
The lack of justice for the families of those killed at Hillsbrough; the unthinking indulgence of reckless tackles; the shepherding of the ball out of play to the point that it becomes obstruction; timewasting; shirt-pulling in the penalty area during a set-piece; the time allowed by referees for free-kicks; racial abuse; the existence of the word "banter"; diving; players wearing coloured boots; Alan Hutton; the over-protection of goalkeepers: the failure of the FA to adequately oversee and regulate the ownership of football clubs; the demise of Darlington; the weird fetishisation of the long slow crossfield pass; the Poznan; the complete and total failure to keep accurate time during games; the relentless scapegoating of officials; the fact that Twitter is the dominant source of news; the mess that is the loan system; Richard Scudamore; the savage assault of the Premier League on memory; the nonsense that is the Man of the Match award; 95% of all pundits, presenters, broadcasters and opinionistas; Sepp Blatter; the ongoing tolerance of homophobia in the stands; the blatant use of lists to pad out football writing; the existence of "banter"; the depressing decline of football in Africa; the plague of agents; the likely demise of Kettering; the wages; the fact that Liverpool fans go straight from the last syllable of "alone" to the beginning of "walk on" without observing the rest; the fact that Manchester United have an Official Responsible Drinking Partner; Colin Murray; the mysterious disappearance of halfway-line flags; Michael Owen's app; half-and-half scarfs at derbies; Wayne Bridge.
Now, take all the energy you were devoting to giving a flying one about the furious implication of a symbol, pick one of the above, and get all seethy and righteous for a cause. And if that lot still can't take your mind off it, then take your preferred hand, form it into a fist -- thumb outside, you don't want to hurt yourself -- and hit yourself hard in the mouth, repeatedly, until you lose both consciousness and the will to complain. There you go. Problem solved.
A note. Anybody who's read everything I've written -- hi Mum! -- may recognise this piece as being similar in theme to one I wrote in 2010, on my own blog, on the same topic. I make no apology for this. If more of you had read it at the time, maybe it wouldn't be a problem anymore. But you didn't. Your fault. And besides, this one's better.