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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: True soccermania needs blind eye

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As a character in a Monty Python skit says, "I've got nothing against homosexuality, but let's hope they don't make it compulsory."

I feel the same about soccermania.

Note that I'm distinguishing between soccermania and support for the All Whites. The All Whites have done themselves and us proud and deserved all the support they received. It's not their fault that some of the media coverage has contained more gush than the Gulf of Mexico.

But supporting New Zealand is one thing; clambering aboard the crowded bandwagon known as the beautiful game is something else altogether.

I have no problem with soccer calling itself the world game because that's what it is, largely by virtue of its simplicity. It undoubtedly can be a beautiful game, but then so can many sports when their exponents combine inspiration and virtuosity.

But what's beautiful about diving in the 18-yard box to con the referee into awarding a penalty? The Italians dived their way to a draw against the All Whites this week, just as they dived Australia out of the 2006 World Cup.

Frenchman Thierry Henry's ability to collapse in a convincing heap helped France to the final in 2006.

Last November the same Thierry Henry handled the ball twice in the lead-up to the goal that enabled France to qualify for this year's World Cup at the Republic of Ireland's expense.

But diving for penalties isn't the worst blight on the beautiful game. In the Brazil-Ivory Coast game one of the African players deliberately ran into Kaka's back. Kaka may or may not have shrugged him off; either way it was innocuous. The Ivory Coast player went down clutching his face as if he'd been elbowed, and Kaka was red-carded ruling him out of the next match. It brought back memories of Cristiano Ronaldo's wink to his bench after his play-acting helped get Wayne Rooney sent off in the 2006 Portugal-England quarter-final.

Even pretending to be the victim of foul play in order to get an opponent unjustly sent off thereby creating an unequal contest isn't the worst blight on the beautiful game.

Watch any major soccer match in any major league and at some point a player will fall or be knocked over and proceed to writhe around as if someone's kicked a hole in his spleen. When the referee has adjudicated on the incident, the player will bounce back to his feet and carry on as if the impact or damage was minor, nothing that should unduly trouble an ultra-fit, match-hardened, adrenalin-pumped professional athlete. Which, of course, is exactly the case.

Top-level sport is a character examination. Players are put under severe physical and mental pressure and we get to see how they deal with it. When coaches or fellow players talk admiringly about teams or individuals showing character they mean courage, stoicism, resilience, toughness. It's hard to think of a sport other than the so-called beautiful game in which participants can put on semi-hysterical displays of fake pain without losing the respect of everyone involved.

In cricket a batsman struck by a rising delivery will often refuse to rub the sore spot in order not to give the bowler the psychological lift of knowing that he's left his mark. Likewise rugby players get up from thunderous tackles when their minds and bodies are telling them to stay out of harm's way.

In soccer if you carry on like a cry-baby to win a penalty, your teammates will envelope you in a mass hug and the coach will praise your street-smarts.

The beautiful game is a delusion which prevents those who run soccer from being offended by or perhaps even noticing these unsightly disfigurements. There's the odd outbreak of tut-tutting, but nothing is ever done so cynical theatrics continue to determine the outcome of big matches.

Given the combination of delusional arrogance and lavish reward, it's little wonder that when disciplined, thwarted or merely inconvenienced players can react like spoilt children, to the point of sabotaging their own World Cup campaigns as the English and French did this week, or that a coach - France's Raymond Domenech - can flout the most basic principle of sportsmanship by refusing to shake his opposite number's hand after the game.

Most sports have their flaws; some have a very ugly side indeed. Conning referees into awarding a penalty is gamesmanship compared to the systematic cheating that goes on in road cycling and athletics, for instance.

But other sports don't label themselves the beautiful game, thus laying claim to a blemish-free countenance and superior aesthetics. That so many are now parroting this line just goes to show that, like love, infatuation is blind.

- NZ Herald

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