The Oxford Dictionary defines it in a pithy but emphatic manner. The verb cheat – act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage. This played through my mind as I shuffled along the touchline gently encouraging my son during his U14 League match on a cool early Spring morning.
People hear horror stories about junior football; pushy parents setting fine examples to the youth of today, fighting one another, berating match officials and players, often their own children who sometimes leave the pitch in tears never to return to the ‘Beautiful Game’. I have witnessed all of this in forty odd years as a player, coach and spectator. I have also witnessed great acts of sportsmanship, camaraderie and have observed the sheer joy taken from seeing children participate in a sport that remains at the forefront of the national consciousness.
This particular match in the Essex Junior Alliance League was unremarkable except for the fact that my son’s team East Thurrock United was, to use the colloquial term, getting ‘mullered’. A 6-0 beating was by some distance their worst result of a season that has already seen them secure home and away victories against the league leaders. It was certainly no way to celebrate the anniversary of an appearance in the Essex County Cup Final; a feat achieved just twelve months previously with largely the same players. Ah the County Cup and a final that was lost 2-0 against very good opponents not before giving them a scare. Our boys had been disappointed but had enjoyed their day out not least because the game had been played in a fine spirit against competitive but equally sporting opponents. This had been a feature of all of their games during that cup run. Fast forward a year and I was now witnessing boys who seemed detached from the game in which they were playing. This was not something I was used to experiencing. And then I remembered.
Before Christmas, the very same opponents (who undeserving of anonymity I shall refer to as Rulebenders F.C.) had ended our hopes of returning to the final securing their own passage to the quarterfinals with a narrow 1-0 victory. We congratulated Rulebenders and wished them well for the remainder of the competition as we hoped that they would do for us had the roles been reversed. However, all was not as it seemed. It came to light from a third party that our opponent’s goalkeeper who was to play such a vital role in keeping his team in the cup was a late replacement for their regular custodian and had already played in the same competition for another Rulebenders F.C. affiliated club. This earlier appearance had rendered him ineligible from further participation in the competition with any other team on the basis that he was cup tied.
Now I am not saying that this lad’s non-appearance would have guaranteed a positive result for East Thurrock. Quite simply we will never know but the close score line, a 1-0 defeat, suggests that his presence played a significant factor in Rulebenders securing their win since the goalkeeper is a key position on the field of play and because this individual made a number of telling saves.
Once East Thurrock became aware of this fact, the Essex FA was duly informed but it has steadfastly chosen to ignore the evidence produced to it. Essentially an organisation committed to promoting fairness in competition, to championing the Football Association’s ‘Respect’ campaign has chosen to do neither. How ironic it seemed that our hosts could segregate supporters from the pitch with a tape proclaiming Respect.
The Essex FA’s inertia is somewhat strange since fielding an ineligible player has always been an offence dealt with severely by the football authorities at any level. Only recently facing a FIFA threat of exclusion from world football unless action was taken, the Swiss FA deducted one of its club’s FC Sion a massive 36(!) points for fielding ineligible players. More recently Qatar was handed a 3-0 defeat threatening its qualification for the London Olympics for selecting players who were not entitled to be on the field of play. Perhaps this isn’t football at quite the same level but the same rules should apply Indeed rule (D) of the Essex County FA’s own rule book for this competition states that “it shall be a breach of Rule for a player to play for more than one Club in any competition in the same season.” Rule (J) states that any Club playing an ineligible player may be fined and the Club, shall, be removed from the Competition. ‘Note the use of the word “shall”. Unfortunately because the original deceit remained undetected for over a week until it was bought to East Thurrock’s attention, it means that no appeal can now be lodged despite an admission of guilt since under its Powers of Management rules, an appeal must be lodged to the competition council within seven days of the match being played.
So if we wearily accept that the FA can condone the wilful breaking of its own rules or to put it another way can allow cheating, then what of Rulebenders F.C. itself? Surely its coaching staff and parents would wish to educate their charges in the ways of doing things correctly? Wrong again I’m afraid as the ethos of ‘win at all costs’ again seems paramount. Having taken the decision to transcend the rules one might have expected that Rulebenders coaching staff, upon being rumbled, would realise the error of their ways and surrender to the punishment from the County FA. One may even have had a vain hope that they would, in an act of contrition, do the decent thing and withdraw from the competition thus allowing an eligible team to proceed in the cup. As the saying goes it is the hope that kills you because as far as Rulebenders is concerned no can do.
It is clear that, whatever the FA may say, the notion that the game of football can be played with a culture of respect is holed beneath the water line. I may have expected our opponents to have been shame-faced on encountering a group of boys that had been wronged but I should not have been so naïve. One father completely missing the point was happy to point out that his son’s team would have won the controversial cup fixture even without the influential assistance of a goalkeeper who had saved a penalty for his sister club in an earlier round of the same competition. Perhaps this particular rule should be ripped up to allow Petr Cech to perform heroics for Spurs in the Cup Final at Wembley should Chelsea lose their semi final to the same opponents. What price Wayne Rooney ‘guesting’ for Barcelona in the Champions League. So what if he played for Manchester United earlier in the competition?
Returning to the 6-0 drubbing. It was tough for our boys to play this game given all that had preceded it. They kept their dignity and performed in a sporting manner as is expected of them, shaking hands with their wrong doing opponents while the East Thurrock management and supporters also behaved impeccably.
And so as one group of boys adheres to the rules and sees that cheating is officially sanctioned, another group is schooled in the art of deception. It was Sophocles writing in around 460 B.C. who said “I would prefer even to fail with honour than to win by cheating.”