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Spitting: Slightly less offensive than racism, but worse than breaking someone’s leg

Why does soccer regard spitting as such a vile act?

Wigan Athletic v West Ham United - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Arfa Griffiths/West Ham United via Getty Images

What’s the worst thing that a footballer can do to another footballer? In theory, the answer should only be bounded by the limits of human physicality, imagination, and cruelty, and as such not really fit for publication on a family website. In any case, while football isn’t a game of opinions, having opinions definitely is, and so your answer may differ from anybody else’s.

In practice, however, there is a correct answer. Spitting. Even when the answer is something else, when shattered bones and shredded ligaments litter the floor — it’s spitting. We know this because West Ham’s Arthur Masuaku was sent off for spitting, and David Moyes was very unhappy indeed:

“Ultimately, Arthur, what he’s done, was despicable. He will deserve everything he gets and he will get something off us as well. It’s unacceptable, totally unacceptable ... If you do that then you’re going to get the punishment in any walk of life. I just asked him, did he spit and he said, ‘Yes’. You can’t do that anywhere. We’ll deal with it appropriately.”

He is supported in this strength of feeling by English football’s disciplinary procedures, which mandate an automatic six-game ban for any player that spits at another. This is twice the automatic suspension for a straight red card, which does rather suggest a strange sense of priorities on the part of the FA. Three games for studs into the ankle; six for spitting.

In part, this particular implication is consequence of the fact that the FA is limited in its punishments. When all you’ve got is suspensions, every infraction is a fraction of another; spitting is two times worse than a nasty tackle, but three-quarters as bad as, say, racially abusing Patrice Evra. This brute moral proportionality may make very little sense when considered as a whole, but is probably preferable to the FA handing out scarlet letters for moral turpitude.

Even given all that, six games is a lot, and as such we can conclude spitting is both bad and significant in its badness. It’s probably worth noting at this stage that spitting has historically had a privileged place in the wider human imagination, situated at the blurred boundary between medicine, magic, and myth. Thoth cured Horus by spitting in his eye, and Jesus cured one man’s blindness and another’s deafness through targeted application of messianic phlegm. Though his charitable motives didn’t stop the Romans from handing down a three-day ban.

Pliny the Elder recommended the application of saliva for maladies as diverse as cricked necks and inflamed organs, while also commending the power of spit to ward off witchcraft. More recently, it’s been at the centre of health scares, embraced and subverted by punk, and the subject of much legislation around the world. What’s clear from all this is that there is power in spit, in the action and in the substance. Those who spit are trying to do something, with something.

To do what? The eminently sensible and correct thing to do whenever this argument rolls around is to compare the consequences of being spat at to a leg-breaking challenge, and then note that having to clean one’s face is certainly preferable to having to reknit one’s bones. Yet attitudes such as Moyes’ persist, spitting in the face of such common sense, and are reflected not only in the structure of football’s punishments but in much of the commentary around such incidents. Clearly, common sense will only take us so far.

Moyes’ comments, in their tone and breadth, seek to broaden the incident: spitting was not just an attack on Nick Powell but on the basic fabric of decency. That said, this was a footballing offence, committed by a footballer on a football field, and football’s moral fabric ... well, there are a thousand reasons to consider it tattered and worn, well beyond the point where a little spit might matter. Yet in many ways this only intensifies the feeling, for decency is often located in appearances, not in underlying structures. Whatever else is going on in the game, it is important that nobody be seen to spit at each other.

And why? Time for the cliche: “I’d rather be punched in the face than spat at.” It is notable that this comparison is made with regard not to the consequences — almost inevitably worse from a punch — but to the action itself. Being spat upon does not do an injury; it is the injury. The contrast with the punch is important here, because while the consequences of the punch can be messy, even disastrous, the action itself is somehow decent. Or at least, not indecent.

In the context of sporting machismo, with all its tangled notions of professional respect and the fair-crack decency of physical competition, it’s the acceptable way to have a go at somebody else. After all, they can always punch you back. Then the best man will win.

Spitting subverts all that. To be spat upon is to be made ridiculous, small, and unworthy; recall Frank Rijkaard’s spit dangling ludicrously from Rudi Voller’s hair. It says: I do not take you seriously enough to punch you in the face. And it’s this, perhaps, that so exercises Moyes and his ilk. In a sporting context, such a dismissal amounts to an assault on the foundational idea that the game, at its heart, is a group of athletes competing in a mutually appreciated spirit.

There is the fabric of the sport that needs protection. Individual footballers suffer the consequences of bad tackles, but spitting, a pointedly banal expression of simple contempt, threatens to unpick the whole business entirely. If the players can’t be bothered to regard one other as worthy opponents, why should their contest matter? No sin could ever be so terrible as that of not taking football seriously.