Monday, 1 March 2010

Morality and Obligation

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”
– Albert Camus

This was the weekend that Wayne Bridge refused to shake hands with John Terry. Formerly good friends and team mates, it was a poignant and – to me at least – really quite difficult to watch moment in the build-up to the Chelsea v Manchester City match at Stamford Bridge yesterday. The various reasons for the snub I won’t recap as they are extremely well-documented elsewhere and so ubiquitous at the moment as to be utterly tedious.

This particular moment, though – and that is literally all it was – is one that won’t fade from my memory any time soon. Predictably hyped up in the preceding 24 hours by the written and broadcast press, Bridge’s participation in the Blatter-designed pre-match handshaking ceremony came into question following his decision to withdraw from the England squad earlier in the week. There were rumours that there were more players in the City squad who would refuse Terry’s gesture, jokes that Wayne Bridge might in fact prefer to plant a swift head butt on his former Chelsea and England team mate instead.

Sky’s coverage right up to the line-up was focussed. It thankfully wasn’t, and didn’t need to be, hysterical – there was a tangible intake of breath from all present when the City players, led by Shay Given, started making their way down the row of Chelsea men. “Here it comes,” intoned Martin Tyler, clearly eager to get on with the football but no doubt infected with the same rubbernecking impulse as the other 40,000 people inside Stamford Bridge and the various millions watching on TV. Terry held his hand out. Bridge, locked into the familiar rhythm of repeated token handshaking, moved as if to take the other man’s hand, paused…and moved on. As far as brutal, even comic, timing goes, it was impeccable. John Terry’s face was frozen: he surely knew it was coming, but that brief moment cannot have been much fun in any case.

He looked lost in thought in that fragment of time. The very idea of a footballer lost in his own thoughts is usually the cue for a tedious joke about the assumed intelligence, or lack thereof, of someone who does something as essentially physical as playing football for a living – something I have always found rather distasteful about lazy football punditry. In this case though, the stresses and strains of the past few weeks were etched on his face for all to see. Was he wondering, maybe, whether it had all been worth it? Was he wondering where it had all begun to fall down around him? Either way, it was a rare moment when the audience, both those in attendance and via satellite, gained a gut-wrenching insight into the personal life of a footballer on the field. The collision of front and back pages was made flesh here – and it left a nasty taste.

The usual ‘public right to know’ defence has invoked by the unscrupulous press lawyers throughout the saga. It doesn’t hold up – it is absolutely not my right, nor anyone else’s, to know anything about someone’s private life purely because they have a high-profile job. Despite this – and even if I hadn’t even glanced at a tabloid newspaper or clicked around online for the last month – it would be clear to see that something wasn’t right with the mood in West London. And it was, honestly, shamefully, fascinating.

This was the weekend that Wayne Bridge refused to shake hands with John Terry. It was also the weekend that Chelsea lost at home for the first time this season – and the first time they have even conceded against Manchester City at home for almost a decade. Are the two things related? It seems hard to imagine otherwise. Based on the evidence of this performance, Chelsea’s labours in Milan and their recent defeat to Everton in the league, it gets trickier and trickier to argue that external issues are not affecting matters on the pitch.

Terry was certainly at fault for City’s first goal (as he was on two occasions at Goodison Park) and his temper threatened to boil over into something more serious in a later clash with Carlos Tevez – though to suggest that it is entirely Terry’s problem would be wrong. A lack of concentration and a mood of uncertainty seems suddenly to be running through the entire Chelsea squad. The players’ heads haven’t been in the right place for a few games now – and it remains to be seen whether Carlo Ancelotti will be able to deal with the rift. The big worry, of course, is that this could prove to be a negative turning point in the club’s season, the moment when it all collapses – up there with Arsenal’s William Gallas sitting alone on the pitch at St. Andrews in 2008.

Having ridden the crest of a wave of confidence for the majority of the season and turning in the sort of performances that has seen them achieve, among other feats, comprehensive defeats of Arsenal at home and away in the Premier League and cruising untroubled through the group stages of the Champions League, Chelsea risk everything falling away at a time when Manchester United are growing in self-assurance thanks in no small part to Wayne Rooney’s phenomenal form and Arsenal facing an extremely generous run-in, with influential players returning from injury all the time. If a player as spirited and indomitable as Didier Drogba has been this season can lift the team’s fortunes and carry them on his broad shoulders until May then Chelsea should hang on to their lead. Much more scandal, distraction or plain bad luck and Manchester United are almost certain to get their historic fourth consecutive title.

So, morality and obligation, then. John Terry’s now-public transgressions seem to boil down to that incredibly blokey kind of moral code – the whole ‘you don’t shag your mate’s ex’, thing, essentially. It should be remembered that Terry hasn’t broken any laws, unlike other former England captains and myriad other prominent figures. He does, however, have the burden of professional obligation in a different sense than a scandalised rock star or actor. He has to attempt to put aside recriminations, ignore any abuse he might get from fans during England’s friendly with Egypt on Wednesday and do his job to the best of his ability – for the good of his team mates, bosses and fans of both club and country. The world of football can be as much a harsh spotlight for a person to live in as it is, undoubtedly, an enviable lifestyle, but the point is that, ideally, a player’s private life and professional life should not interfere with each other. Terry’s biggest mistake, perhaps, has been to allow problems outside of work to influence his performance. If morality hasn’t troubled him in the past, his obligations certainly are now.

1 comment:

  1. Matt,

    interesting post. Obviously, don't give a damn about the football, but do give a damn about the freedom of the press.

    Terry is an amazing fusion of the twin problems of English libel law; he simultaneously represents the out of control hunger of paps & tabloids for celebrity gossip, and the nightmare of the legitimate, important media being choked of important stories by injunction.

    Do we have a right to know his private life? Well, surely we do, if it's having a measurable impact on his professional life - it's the England captaincy that makes this from a private story into a public one.

    I think it's hard to justify we have no "right to know" here; it's even harder to justify the Super-injunctions - the libel law equivalent of nuclear bombardment of the press - that Terry resorted to, especially as part of the super-injunction was to cover up his questionable charging for tours of the Chelsea grounds.

    I'd say Chelsea shareholders, but also Chelsea stakeholders (i.e. fans of the club and their rivals) have a right to know about that.