The other weekend, a bluff, hard central defender of the old-school did something unforgivable on the field of play. Although not picked up at the time, video evidence was damning, condemnation was universal, and disciplinary action swiftly followed. Dave Whelan - by day, mild-mannered chairman; by night, chirruping opinionista - was quick to speak for the nation: "[It] has no place in modern football. No place in society. It is disgusting. I was shocked. It is totally unacceptable."
Yes, that's right. Antolín Alcarez of Wigan spat at Wolves' Richard Stearman. He has now been banned, and apologies have been issued. Truly, footballing justice is swift.
Spitting is one of those rare issues that unites all those involved in the game. "The worst thing you can do on the pitch," stated Lee Dixon later that night, apparently without irony, while Wolves' Roger Johnson was in agreement: "It is the worst thing a footballer can do to a fellow pro." That's right, folks. It's worse than breaking an ankle, or smashing a cheekbone, or grabbing testicles, or punching your opponents (or team-mates). Hell, if we want to take Dixon literally, Jamie, then it's worse than turning to an opponent, removing their head from their shoulders using a specially-sharpened shinpad, then larruping their bloodied noggin into the top corner, which by implication should only carry a two-match ban. Of course, you would be booked if you removed your shirt in celebration.
(While I'm here, it's obviously worse than racism too. Let's return to Dave Whelan on that particular issue: "Just got to get on with it. Players who come and complain, sometimes they are a little bit out of order." And importantly, nobody's sought to explain away Alcarez's sin as being misunderstood banter, down to the heat of the moment, or noted that in some Hindu cultures, spitting is used to benevolently indicate personal imperfection, and so ward against the evil eye. Thanks to Wikipedia for that last one.)
Spitting is disgusting. This much is known. But why is it so disgusting? It can't be the basic principle that someone else's saliva is always bad; in some circumstances it's entirely acceptable, albeit the saliva isn't generally the point. Diseases are possible, but unlikely, and I doubt 'good God, the common cold!' lies behind the general revulsion. Besides, if footballers really were concerned about the contagious nasties lurking in their colleagues' expectorant, they might not fling themselves to the ground with such liberal abandon. The amount of gob the average football field acquires, it's a wonder some of the lighter players don't skim off the surface a couple of times before coming to their yelping, pleading rest.
There is a long, proud history of spitting and insult, even before we get to football. Shylock castigates Antonio when he comes to borrow money: "'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so;/ You, that did void your rheum upon my beard". Captain Ahab spits at the whale "for hate's sake". And English punks were so taken with spitting's offensive power that they subverted it, adopted it, and did it all over one another, with the unhappy consequence that Joe Strummer caught hepatitis from his adoring fans.
Inside football, it comes around again and again. Siniša Mihajlovic, Francesco Totti, and of course Frank Rijkaard have all been caught flobbing by television cameras. So too was Patrick Vieira, who copped a six-game ban and a £45,000 fine after being sent off at Upton Park. Part of that was down to an altercation with a steward, but the rest was down to his response to Neil Ruddock, who ran forty yards to shake his hand as he departed. First, Vieira plants his hand in his face; then, he spits. (Ruddock, incidentally, managed to surrender the moral high ground remarkably quickly, telling the nation that "he missed, but I could smell the garlic on his breath". No action was taken.)
What links all the above incidents is the same response, again and again: an outrage, a disgrace, the worst thing you can do. And that, perhaps, is the key.
Look again at Johnson's quote, particularly the words "worst" and "fellow pro". There's the answer, I think. The "worst", as we've established, is comically overstated to the point of nonsense, and yet the fact of that overstatement is telling. It indicates that this is something that exists not as a rational response to trifling actuality but as an irrational taboo at the heart of football. It's not worse than all the things above, obviously, and yet it is, intuitively. Contextually. Spiritually, if you like. And the answer to that lies in the "fellow pro".
Because whatever you think of the various acts of violence, abuse, and disdain that punctuate the game, none of them carry the visceral contempt that spitting does. Flying to a challenge rashly, swinging an arm, or - particularly in these banter-soaked times - calling somebody any manner of Adult Language all takes place within the bounds of mutually accepted recognition. There is violence, there is enmity, and there may be personal disdain, but that doesn't have the same disrespect. Being punched in the face may leave you bleeding, but being spat at bruises the soul. It dampens the skin, but it burns the ego.
With the bundle of phlegm flies a denigration: you, the recipient of my spittle, are not worth my responding to in the proper manner. If I respected you, I'd hit you; I don't, so I won't. That's why it's the "worst" thing you can do: it's an insult more profound than being called a c--t, or a Tory, or a Tory c--t. At least that way, you're a something. This is the semiotics of the playground, of course, but then hey: that's
life, I mean, just look at the state of it. God the world's a hideous shambles populated by gibbering morons football!