More than points at stake as Liverpool and Manchester United go head-to-head

Long-held grudges and malicious desires from some fans may have spelled the end for fair play in the upper echelons of the game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 4:07am

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sportsmanship as "fair and generous in one's behaviour or treatment of others, especially in a game or sporting contest".

And it gives an example of the noun's usage - "he has a reputation for fair play and good sportsmanship". If we read the dictionary correctly, then good sportsmen and women should be in possession of athletic talent and exemplary sporting character whenever they take to the field of play.

So here's hoping tomorrow's gladiatorial showdown between bitter arch rivals Liverpool and Manchester United will see such paragons of virtue take to the pitch at Old Trafford.

We hope in vain, of course. The acrimony and rancour between the teams makes this the grudge match of all grudge matches each and every time. Even Paul Scholes admitted this week that facing Liverpool was as big, if not bigger than, squaring up to Manchester City.

And given the perverseness of human psychology, it is the malevolence and foul play as well as the hyper-tense football that deems the annual clashes so watchable and memorable.

When the Oxford wordsmiths defined the adjective "sporting", as in "it was jolly sporting of you to let me have first go", they were obviously writing for a sweeter, gentler age. Jolly bitter and unsporting, more like.

So pity poor referee Howard Webb. He will have to grapple with raw emotions rather than sporting etiquette when he attempts to take charge of this pugnacious pair for the first time since he officiated the hugely controversial FA Cup tie in January 2011.

That game, the first of Kenny Dalglish's second spell as Anfield manager, ended in a 1-0 win for United, the goal coming from a first-minute penalty awarded by Webb, who also later sent off Steven Gerrard.

After the game Dalglish called the penalty "a joke" and Ryan Babel tweeted a mocked-up picture of Webb in a United shirt with the message: "And they call him one of the best referees? That's a joke." Babel was fined £10,000 (HK$124,000) by the Football Association and later apologised to Webb.

But the grievance remains with Liverpool supporters because they believe the referee is partial to United.

We'd like to think of Webb as a good sport who does not hold grudges towards those who claim he supports the Red Devils (he's from Rotherham). One thing is for certain. He will have his eyes peeled for the latest appearance of Liverpool striker Luis Suarez's skill set - the Uruguayan's crude sleight of hand.

The jury has been out for some time weighing up if the Liverpool striker is a sportsman or the polar opposite, after he handled the ball before he scored against Mansfield Town in the FA Cup last Sunday.

But was his handball instinct or intent? It's a tricky one when you watch the replay. He looks to the ref and expects the whistle to blow, so knew he had done wrong.

Guilty or otherwise, the now infamous Hand of Suarez is up there with the pawing by Maradona and likewise has caused a divisive maelstrom of opinion.

Of course, Suarez has form when it comes to what many view as cheating - his diving could rival Guo Jingjing's if he donned swimwear.

Yet he is not alone in his chicanery. Many players do their best to break the rules and get away with it. Worryingly, the FA seems helpless as to stop them.

And therein lays the rub. Cheating is not just pervasive in football and other sports. Moreover, breaking rules is now an acceptable part of society. Suarez is merely a product of - and mirrors - a society that has adopted a brazen attitude towards cheating.

Bankers, politicians, scientists, police, organisations and global institutions - even entire countries, China, the US, et al - have been caught cheating. Yet after a period of feigning sheepishness, they carry on regardless.

Being caught just does not seem to matter anymore. We accept cheats as par for the course. We grudgingly respect those may who have become successful because they are masters of trickery and have turned subtle cheating into an art form.

As we reach for our Spanish-English dictionaries to yell " no eres deportista!" at our TV screens tomorrow, let us remind ourselves of one footballer who did set an example.

West Ham legendary striker Paolo di Canio won a Fifa Fair Play award in 2001 after he stopped a match at Goodison Park. With Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard injured and the goal open, Di Canio chose to catch the ball and halt play rather than shoot.

"For me, a player has to be genuine at all times," he said this week.

"If, after one second, a player realised what he had done was dishonest, then he should tell the referee. It is not fair to take advantage of such a situation," said the Italian, who is now manager at Swindon.

"So if Suarez handled intentionally and realised he was wrong, then in my opinion he should have confessed. But we are all different," he added.

He said he was sad because he does not think we will see many acts like his in the future.

"It seems to me that the new generation has grown up with the idea that you are intelligent and more clever than others if you benefit from a bad action or situation," he said.

"You see it on reality television shows, where some people become famous just for acting in a bad way," Di Canio added.

Spoken like a true sportsman.