On November 30th as I was going into the Luzhniki I got a call from my Dad’s phone. I was delighted to be able to talk with him yet it was actually my brother on the other end. He told me our Dad had taken a turn and was “not too good”, Irish for “at death’s door”. I asked if I should go home and he thought it’d be a good idea. As I got back to our apartment here in Moscow the next call was worse, Dad was all but dead, written him off by the Doctors. I returned to Ireland to find him in an induced coma with no hope of recovery. Doctors spoke of end of life decisions, of letting him go peacefully and not being selfish. My brother, sister, mother and I all discussed the options but knew in our hearts that he would pull through.
I spent many hours sitting next to him, recalling old events, telling him about new ones and remembering his attitudes to sport which have shaped my own. The man I idolised is a true sportsperson. Born and bred GAA, he won county titles, played for his county and then (when living in Dublin) played football and rugby. When he moved into coaching his ethos was to ensure fair play and respect. Parents were forbidden from shouting negative comments at players (ours or theirs) or officials and he himself never criticised his charges. Instead he practiced positive reinforcement and with some far-sighted colleagues in our club, changed the whole Juvenile set up, allowing the club blossom into a power house of Dublin GAA.
Sitting next to him, holding his hand, I reminded him of times when a team was seriously short of players and how the coaches would agree to “give the points” to the opposition and play a challenge match – for the kids. Often strong players from the numerically advantaged side would join the opposition and play games of their lives against their own team, I know as I was that centre half back. I reminded him of how he led our team from the pitch in Garristown when our opponents (in a festival cup final) found no way past yours truly in goals and proceeded to bring on bigger and hairier players who were returning from a minor (under-18) match. That our match was under-14’s made the introduction of grossly overage players a danger to youngsters, that and the 12minutes of injury time the referee dreamed up. There was no sport enjoyed that day, only adults wishing to win at all costs, at costs to young children who deserved better.
Such sentiments as my Dad’s have not disappeared from sports, we all know this. Fair play, honesty, competition as level as possible, all still exist up to the highest levels. Revelations of match fixing due to betting syndicates are so 2000’s that it’s scornful to go on with such avenues of investigation. FIFPro’s recent report on player welfare in Eastern Europe is an interesting read and one that can instruct both authorities, clubs and players on what course of action can be taken to remedy the mess football finds itself in. As I’d mentioned in a previous article, in Malta (and many, many other countries) if a full back slips to allow his opponent in, the fans don’t roar at him for the mistake or to get up and chase back, they call him a cheat. Such disillusionment is not only reserved for football in Malta, nor is it the pure domain of football.
And of course there is use of PEDs in sports, of course there is match fixing (both types) and cheating on the field of play also goes on. However no governing body is set up to allow anonymity for whistleblowers and the current legislation actively discourages those willing to come forward. The governing bodies will cry poor mouth and state that doing so could leave them open to legal or financial damages, this is a convenient excuse for turning a blind eye as much as possible and hanging whistleblowers out to dry. Those who dare to speak up are rounded upon by their peers and bullied by the governing bodies, leaving very few who are willing to go through turmoil to ensure their sport stays clean. Only this week it emerged that Lance Armstrong won’t face criminal charges, despite lying under oath. Further revelations have emerged from the Fuentes case though the focus remains on the pariah sports of cycling and athletics, theirs being less profitable than football and tennis and so make for easier pickings. It will go on and on until one governing body breaks from the ranks and cries stop – though to do this will require greater courage than what has been shown to date.
So what can be done about it, to stop football and sport dying a death of a million cuts? I’ve read many ideas, listened to different paths, though ultimately it is the respect of rules and fellow competitors that is central to any progress. Those with talent and determination will still find their way to the upper ranks, those with determination and spirit will too, the rest will find a level and“on their day” occasionally bother the top level and even grow from their experience. Though how does this happen? Possibly through a general amnesty, where all come clean and sign a legal contract committing themselves to the laws of the sport and to respect those laws at all times. Immediately there will be a Year zero (though not in a Mao or Killing Fields manner) after which anyone caught breaking the law will face lifetime bans and imprisonment. No excuses can be made, no reasons can be accepted. Once the B sample comes in, you’re out. You miss the 3rd test, it’s good night Irina. You’ve accepted a bribe to help an opposing team win, Abdulkader hang up your boots. If Paddy or Cecil are arranging results, they’re doing time. It won’t happen because money, media and those involved won’t have the moral courage to do so.
Yesterday I spoke with my Dad by phone. He asked about work, if I was still involved in that @@@@, I answered yes. He laughed and said “Sure it’s all a joke. On the telly here they’re talking about hundreds of matches fixed, who’s going to do anything about it.” I wished I could have said, I could. I wished that our first full conversation since November wasn’t about corruption in sports, that he’d tell me about something, anything else. A man fully wakes up 3 weeks ago from a coma and the first thing that he sees on tv is a known and accepted PED user giving us a Di, Bertie, Keane moment where Kleenex isn’t needed. I am so happy that I’ll get to go to a match again with my Dad, to enjoy deep conversations and more shared moments. But I’m ashamed that the business in which I work is so far removed from the ethics and actions of those who gave me a love of sports. I’m ashamed that there is no hope, ray of light or chance of progress on the horizon. Sports, not just football, are more than life or death, though right now they do not deserve such an accolade.