A new low for football


THERE is classic piece of British snobbery about sport: “Football is a gentleman’s game played by thugs and rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen”. Rugby is still a minority interest in the Arab world, though it has acquired an enthusiastic following in Libya — perhaps because it was one of the sports, including wrestling, which was banned by Muammar Qaddafi.

Players there say it is a great way to work off their aggression. Clearly rugby ought to go nationwide though the gunmen who dominate Libya probably lack the guts, let alone the energy to play this serious contact sport on the rock hard pitches available to the country’s dozen or so teams. Four years ago Libyan rugby had a major boost when a scratch team scored a stunning win over British side made up of crew from a visiting Royal Navy survey vessel.

Rugby players take some extremely hard knocks during a game but keep on playing. “Diving” to win penalties is virtually unheard off. And though tempers can sometimes flare on the pitch, rugby crowds in playing nations, which include the Australians, Argentines, British, French, Italians, Irish, New Zealanders and South Africans are notable for their good humor and friendly rivalry. Rugby remains a sport where, for spectators, a good run of dramatic play can be almost a satisfying as their own team’s victory.

Compare this with the prima donna conduct of football players, where the slightest knock is an excuse for ludicrous rolling around on the ground in the hope of winning some advantage from the referee. Consider also the bovine behavior of fans on the terraces and all too often in the streets around the stadia before and after a match and unfortunately there is less and less reason to still call football “the beautiful game”.

It is not just footballers who are guilty of misconduct. Officials have often set an appalling example with managers and coaches invading the pitch in the wake of disputed decisions by referees or linesmen. But a new low in this thug-like response was reached at the weekend when the gun-totting owner of a Greek team, PAOK Salonika charged onto the pitch towards the referee after a last minute goal against AEK Athens was disallowed because a player was offside.

Ivan Savvides, one of Greece’s richest men, did not actually draw the pistol in a holster on his belt, but that was immaterial. Launching himself toward the referee was an outrageous criminal act. What Savvides would have done, had not his own bodyguards eventually overcome his protests and led him from the field, can be imagined.

This is not just a case for the Greek and international football authorities. It is arguable that the Greek government should take a hand in this scandal. Russian-born Savvides heads a Cypriot company with Russian investors which is taking over Greece’s state-controlled port company on a 34-year lease. The question should surely be asked if this billionaire is a fit and proper person to be in control of a key economic sector.

Football is awash with money, in quantities that have distorted it as a sport and turned it into a business. Savvides represents the very worst of the megabucks that are endangering the game. He should be made an example and punished severely for his disgusting conduct.