Ihad the following reverie before the final: what if Southgate and Mancini agreed they wouldn’t let penalties decide the game? That if it came to penalties they’d just say, no thanks Uefa, we’re not going to do it – we’ll share the title. Dreams … idle dreams …
Let’s gloss over what happened in the last game itself. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most important thing ever to have happened is England qualifying for the final of Euro 2020. It’s a truth not quite so universally acknowledged that the semi-final against Denmark was won by the amazing Raheem Sterling taking an equally amazing dive to earn a penalty in extra time. It’s the kind of action that draws furious condemnation from opponents (sorry Denmark!) and neutrals (sorry world!) but gets laughed off, glossed over or celebrated in the winning country.
Does cheating in sport matter? It depends on what you consider to be cheating. Writing about literary magazines in the LRB in 1985, Clive James paraphrased an insight of Wittgenstein’s: ‘A game consists of the rules by which it is played.’ I’ve often thought about that remark since I first read it as a graduate student. I’m still not quite sure whether it’s a dazzlingly brilliant insight or just so incredibly fucking obvious no one else had ever bothered to say it out loud. What else would a game consist of, after all? Is there some Platonic essence of a game, distinct from the activity visibly happening? The old Soviet Encyclopedia beautifully defined chess as ‘an art manifesting itself in game’. Is that what Ludwig was talking about? He had clearly thought a great deal about games, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time playing or watching them.
My main objection to Wittgenstein’s observation is that a great deal of what is important in a game isn’t actually in the rules. You see this most clearly in cheating, which is subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, different between games. I’m not talking about the universally banned activities around drugs and doping. These are damaging to the sports in which they happen for all sorts of reasons, and one of them is that the cheating is invisible. The spectators don’t know whether they can believe the evidence of their own eyes. That, for me anyway, ruins the spectacle in cycling, athletics and – unpopular opinion klaxon – tennis.
The cheating I’m interested in involves the things you see happen while you are watching or playing a game that are against its rules but sometimes within its ethos. This is a good moment for thinking about cheating, thanks to the bewildering proliferation of elite sport in our second Covid summer. Euro 2020, arguably the technical pinnacle of world football, was displaced into the summer of 2021 by the virus, and so was the world’s biggest sporting occasion, the Tokyo Olympics. Also displaced from 2020 until late this year is the slightly more niche World Chess Championship final between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi. All this knock-on sport means there’s a big overlap with the huge sporting events that were always meant to be happening in 2021, such as the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, which is the biggest event in rugby outside the quadrennial World Cup, and the T20 World Cup, the biggest international contest in the most popular form of cricket. And then there are all the regular annual contests, from the four tennis slams to the four golf majors to everything else. There’s a lot of sport – and that means a lot of cheating too.
There is a comic aspect to some cheating, and it is always a lot more fun to think about than doping. Consider the example of cycling. Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour de France in 1903, won the race the next year too, before being stripped of his victory. He had resorted to the wonderfully simple and direct expedient of taking a train. (You might wonder how he got away with it the first time. The answer seems to be that the stages were so horrendously long – up to 473 kilometres, the distance from London to Land’s End – that the contestants were out of sight of one another, of spectators and of the race authorities, for long stretches.) The contemporary equivalent of Garin is not the drug cheat Lance Armstrong but Femke van den Driessche, who was disqualified from the 2016 Cyclo-cross World Championships for having a hidden motor inside her bicycle. She’s the only person who has been caught at a high-profile professional event with a concealed engine in her bike, though far from the only person believed to have used one. Serious cycling fans are outraged by what they call ‘mechanical doping’; perhaps it’s only because I’ve given up on cycling as a spectator sport that I find the idea of bikes with hidden motors quite funny.
The example of chess shows that cheating can have a positive impact in sport. Top-class professional chess used to be one of the most mind-meltingly dull things it was possible to watch, even for deeply interested parties, which I once was. Each player was given 150 minutes to play forty moves. That’s five hours for forty pairs of moves. If the game hadn’t finished after that, which it often hadn’t, there would be an adjournment until the next day, with a new time control of an hour for every sixteen moves. During the adjournment, the player and his team – trainer, support players – would analyse the position at move forty and come up with ideas for what might happen next.
That, it always seemed to me, was a form of legal cheating. Chess is supposed to be a contest between two players. What’s all this bollocks about team analysis and help? You aren’t allowed to call for advice from your team while you’re at the board, so why should you be able to get advice during an adjournment? The unfair advantage given to top players with strong, sometimes state-provided support was well evoked in the final episode of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, and is an even more prominent theme in the Walter Tevis novel from which it was adapted. In tennis, another mano-a-mano contest, it’s cheating in the men’s game for a player to get advice from his coach during a match. So why is it OK for a chess player to get advice mid-game? The answer is just that there was no way of preventing it. Players would analyse the positions with their teams, whether it was fair or not, so it became part of the rules. The difference with tennis is that you can see when a player on the court and a coach in the stands are communicating. In chess, a form of cheating that was against the ethos of the game was perfectly within its rules.
Computers cured that. It was thought that they would wreck chess – the fact that the cheap chess app on your smartphone could crush the world’s strongest player would put people off the game for ever. Instead, computers transformed chess by making the professional game into a contest that has to finish in a single session. That was the only way to prevent players scuttling off and using computers to analyse positions, and therefore turning the game into a battle between programmers. Not that there haven’t been instances of cheating: smartphones hidden behind tiles in the loo, messages conveyed from off-site computer analysis via gestures by audience members, or via Bluetooth devices hidden in caps. In general, though, cheating hugely helped the game. Chess got quicker, and much more interesting, and new faster formats such as ‘rapid’ and ‘blitz’ became popular not just among ordinary players but the top pros too. Add the fact that chess is easily played remotely and across time zones, and we can see why the game has had such a successful pandemic, with users on the biggest site, chess.com, having increased by twelve million over the last year and a bit. The Queen’s Gambit helped too.
There’s an argument to be made that something similar has happened in football, with the arrival of the video assistant referee, or VAR. The fact that VAR’s introduction in the English Premiership has been an injustice factory and fiesta of administrative incompetence is frustrating, because VAR is basically a good idea. It’s also an idea that, given the technical resources available, shouldn’t have been so hard to implement, as other sports such as cricket have shown. Euro 2020 showed VAR working the way it should, quickly and efficiently and in the background. It helped to make Euro 2020 the best-refereed football tournament I have ever watched. VAR isn’t there to run the game or replace the referee, but to prevent preventable mistakes in three specific areas: when a goal is scored; when a penalty is awarded; and whether a player should or shouldn’t be sent off.
It’s in these latter two categories where we see the influence, and the importance, of cheating. Penalties and sendings-off involve fouls, which are a straightforward form of rule-breaking, but can also involve faking or ‘simulation’ – pretending to have been fouled. Of the very, very many things that make fans cross, nothing makes them crosser than penalties and sendings-off induced by simulation. We all know what it looks like: the faintest contact with a defender sending the grizzled pro to writhe in agony on the pitch, one eye on the referee, the other on next year’s Oscars. There was a beautiful example in Italy’s quarter-final match against Belgium, when the inappropriately named Immobile collapsed with an apparently career-ending injury after being breathed on by a defender, only to bounce sheepishly back to his feet and trot off to join the celebrations when Italy scored ten seconds later. The generic fan term for this kind of behaviour – which includes elaborate delaying tactics, shirt-pulling, winding up opponents and so on – is ‘shithousery’.
Fouls are against the rules but within the ethos of football. They’re just a fact of the game and all players foul, some better – more intelligently and tactically – than others. Simulation and shithousery are against the rules but the question of whether they are within the ethos of the game is more complicated. José Mourinho has said that simulation is widely accepted in football, but not in England. English fans do seem to hate simulation more than fans in many other countries, yet there is plenty of simulation in English football. Harry Kane, the England captain, is a master of the small simulations involved in manufacturing fouls, holding his ground so that it looks like a defender has barged into him, or going to ground in a challenge slightly more easily than is warranted. Harry Maguire, the other lantern-jawed stalwart of the national side, dived like Odette in Swan Lake when he made contact with a Czech defender in the group stage. The sprawling collapse might have made the referee think he was overselling things; he had a good claim that he had been fouled, but the histrionics didn’t help. If the ref had gone to VAR, he might well have given a penalty – but because he’d detected a dive, he didn’t.
The most famous incident of cheating in the history of world football was another instance of this tension around the game’s ethos. Diego Maradona’s handball, which helped eliminate England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup, was, to Maradona himself, a moment of inspired streetwise cunning. It exemplified the attitude that Bobby Charlton said was described to him by a South American international: ‘Don’t you think, as a professional, that if we can get away with creating an advantage for our side, we really should be applauded?’ To England fans, it was a moral outrage, a fundamental contradiction of the game’s values, of its ethos. Interestingly, Maradona’s goal is still admired in Argentina, and features in highlight reels shown by the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino. VAR would catch Maradona today, and there would be much louder condemnation – but I suspect there would still be places where his act seemed within the broad ethos of a game that will always have a place for simulation, though it will never admit as much. We fans tend to be textbook hypocrites on the issue. Depending on whom you support, Sterling’s award-winning dive was either a) a classic and basically benign forward’s trick, exaggerating penalty area contact within the ethos of the game, or b) evil simulation of the sort that makes Americans tweet ‘This is why I will never watch soccer.’
Rugby likes to think of itself as the opposite of football when it comes to the question of simulation. In fact, rugby likes to think of itself as the opposite of football in a number of respects. The most important – and the one where rugby’s sense of moral superiority is best justified – concerns players’ attitudes to the referee. In football it’s routine to see players haranguing the referee, surrounding him, getting in his face. In rugby, only the team captain is allowed to speak to the referee, and he’s well advised to be careful about how he does it. ‘You can speak to me two times a half, three if I’m having a bad game,’ the French referee Romain Poite told the former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton – an edict Warburton said was the best captaincy advice he was ever given. This rule is simply and unequivocally better than football’s chaotic free-for-all and I can’t see any good reason not to adopt it. (The captain is sometimes further from the action on the football field than in rugby, so these conversations might take a little longer. All the more reason for them to be as infrequent as possible.)
Simulation is against the ethos of rugby. The game’s code is linked to stereotypical ideas about maleness, and simulation is, according to those codes, weak, unmanly, underhand. In the words of football fan Nigella Lawson: ‘I prefer soccer to rugger. I feel rugby shows men how they like to see themselves – noble warriors, primitive god-monsters – whereas soccer shows men as women see them: competitive, full of greedy ego and with that mummy-watch-me-jump need to impress.’ Most rugby fans would be inclined to agree. Rugby players don’t feign injury, they feign health. The game’s chronic concussion problem emerges from a culture in which you go back into battle as long as you are still able to walk, and no matter if you’re seeing stars, seeing double, or can’t hear over the ringing in your ears. In the England football team, senior players such as Maguire and Kane will keel over at a butterfly’s touch if they think it will win them a free kick. In rugby, the Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones stayed on his knees after a tackle during a warm-up game last month, and everyone watching knew it was serious, for the simple reason that he is the most capped player in the history of rugby and nobody had ever seen him stay down before. In the third test against New Zealand in 2017, he was knocked out by a forearm smash from Jerome Kaino, but shook it off and was allowed to stay on the field – which should have been a huge scandal but was shrugged off as men-will-be-men, concussion be damned.
The fact that rugby dislikes and avoids simulation doesn’t mean that rugby players don’t cheat. They cheat literally all the time. I don’t know any sport that involves more cheating, in which playing outside the rules is such a routine feature. When a player is tackled and both teams compete for the ball, it’s called a ‘breakdown’: if you watch a breakdown in slow motion, it’s common to see three or four or five deliberate violations of the rules. Slowing the ball illegally even by a second or two can confer a significant advantage. Players study the referee to see what offences a given ref tends to notice, and adjust their play accordingly. For breakdown specialists, the game is about seeing what they can get away with, locating the line that the referee won’t let them cross. It follows that the best players in the world tend to be the best cheats. For many years the unchallenged best rugby player in the world was the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, a genius, and a highly likeable man too, but also a player who cheated so much and so well that a popular rugby T-shirt reads: ‘I’m not an alcoholic – I only drink when Richie McCaw is offside.’
What’s happened in rugby union, since it turned professional in 1995, is that players have become more and more conscious of the fact that the person who determines the outcome of the game is the referee. The players manage the referee and often speak of ‘painting a picture’, showing that their breakdown and tackle and scrummaging technique is correct, and inviting him to conclude that when things go wrong the opposition is therefore at fault. A classic example happens at the breakdown when the tackled player is supposed to roll away immediately. He often can’t, because he’s trapped in place by his opponents. In order to demonstrate the fact – to paint a picture for the referee – he will hold his hands above his head in a pose of theatrical helplessness. Sometimes he actually is being trapped (and sometimes his opponents are doing it on purpose, holding him down in the hope that the referee will penalise him, as indeed refs often do). But sometimes he is just trying to get in the way. Also, and more subtly, he’s sometimes lying there not as an immediate obstruction – which can be obvious to the ref – but to occupy the place where an opponent arriving at the breakdown will want to plant his feet, to exert maximum leverage. He’s not directly in the way of the action, in other words, but he’s blocking access to the place where the opponent needs to be to affect the action. This is a much sneakier form of cheating and only the best referees will spot it.
Actions like this aren’t simulation in the sense of faking a foul or injury, but there is nonetheless an element of theatrics to them: they are a form of simulation, but they don’t contradict the game’s code of manly stoicism and primitive god-monsterness. They also point to the great weakness in modern professional rugby, which is that the referee is too important. A couple of long-term rugby fans I know have given up watching because they feel the players are there merely to supply the raw materials for the referee to decide who wins the game. Certainly, the Lions tour of 2017 was decided by two or three crucial refereeing decisions.
The complexity of cheating and simulation and all the rest can make the sports fan pine for the simplicity of cricket (only joking!). Cricket is, I would argue, the most intellectually complicated and satisfying of the world’s main ball sports – but there isn’t much room in it for simulating. What would you simulate? Batsmen who’ve been caught off fine nicks pretend not to have hit the ball, but that doesn’t feel like cheating, just like what you do, and in any case in pro cricket umpires and opponents have TV reviews to fall back on. The predominant form of cheating in cricket is the simple expedient of tampering with the ball to give some help to the bowler. Baseball is having a small crisis at the moment, concerning pitchers tweaking the ball with various illicit sticky substances to make it spin and swing more. To most cricketers, certainly most bowlers, this is a venial sin. The game is skewed towards batsmen, as all bowlers (I was one) will tell you, usually with an edge of bitterness: ‘It’s a batsman’s game.’ Dry pitch, ball with the shine gone, long day under hot sun, ball not doing anything: maybe give the ball a little help? It’s against the rules, but it’s been going on as long as the game has been played. In any case, the ball is checked by the umpires after the fall of every wicket. So how bad can it be?
Well, it can be bad enough to cause the biggest world cricket scandal this century, and the biggest crisis in Australian cricket since the 1980s. In March 2018, clearly acting on existing suspicions, a South African TV camera homed in on the young Australian player Cameron Bancroft, who in an excruciating sequence of events could be seen doing something to the ball, then hiding something in his trousers, then protesting his innocence to the umpires: look, ump, nothing in my pockets, honest! In the fallout, Bancroft took some of the blame, but even more was taken by the two older players in the leadership group, the captain, Steve Smith, and his right-hand man, David Warner, who had instructed Bancroft to ball-tamper. Smith and Warner were suspended for a year, Bancroft for nine months, and there was some question whether they would ever play for Australia again. Cricket Australia commissioned a report, which denounced the ‘winning without cost’ mentality in the team and said the players were living inside a ‘gilded bubble’ and encouraged to ‘play the mongrel’ – to be aggressive and hostile. The team made clear it was sorry, but grievously undermined the effect of the apology by failing to admit that the ball-tampering had been going on for a long time and had affected the outcome of previous matches. The bowlers did not admit to being in on the act. So we were expected to believe that the first time the team had ever ball-tampered was when they were caught on television, and that the only people who knew about it were the three men who’d been busted. Yeah, right. The report also pointed out that ‘women’s cricket remains unaffected.’ I haven’t watched enough women’s sport to pronounce on it categorically, but I have watched a fair bit, and I’ve never seen simulation in women’s football, cricket or rugby. Draw whatever conclusions you like from that.
It’s striking that ball-tampering turned into such a big deal, and not just because it broke the all-important eleventh commandment, the one about not getting caught. The England cricket captain Michael Atherton was caught ball-tampering in 1994, and wasn’t suspended for so much as a game, just given a bollocking and a small fine. No one thinks any less of him for it. As I’ve said, messing about with the ball is generally seen as a venial sin. The difference in the Australian case concerns that underlying tension about rules v. ethos. The Australian cricket team is the most disliked in the world, because of the abrasiveness and hostility with which they play the game, frequently crossing what other teams perceive as the line between competing hard and cheating. At the same time, the team prides itself on not ‘crossing the line’ – the title of Gideon Haigh’s very good book about the ball-tampering story and the cricket culture behind it. So Australia are the self-appointed experts on the game’s ethos, while repeatedly violating it and the actual rules. Those rules talk about ‘the spirit of cricket’, thus making cricket the only game in which respecting the implicit ethos is explicitly part of the rules. All this helps explain why nobody much likes the Australian cricket team – not even Australians. I once asked an Ozzie friend why the side was so disliked and he immediately said: ‘It’s because middle-class Australians regard them as a bunch of uncouth sledging hoons.’
The sport which by general consent has the most serious attitude towards cheating is golf. It’s the only sport in which players call penalties against themselves, sometimes for things no one else has been able to see, as when a player is adjusting the club to take a shot and accidentally touches the ball while ‘addressing’ it. Golf is a grim game in many respects, environmentally catastrophic and associated with all sorts of exclusionary and discriminatory baggage, but the game’s ethos is in full alignment with its rules. No other sport manages that. Let’s not hold our breath waiting for other games to catch up. We’ll never judge our own team by the same standards we use to judge other teams. If football were already up there with golf, Sterling wouldn’t have won that penalty, and then where would we be?
Listen to John Lanchester discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.
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