There are certain commonalities that can be seen across all sporting codes - the truisms of hard work and dedication, incompetence or other failings of governing bodies and officials; even “growing the brand” is no longer the preserve of the Premier League salesmen. Athletics, golf, NFL, you name it. Even the “state of the game” missives that fill the Sunday morning column inches are strikingly similar. Compare for instance the reaction to match-fixing allegations in tennis to FIFA corruption – the hand-wringing and finger pointing that fill the inches could easily be pasted from one to the other without anyone noticing, with all the effort of a lazy university student filling an essay with Wikipedia articles. That, however, is a story for another day.
Eventually, if one or two of these sporting inevitabilities get regularly associated with a certain practice – think cycling and drug use for example – the sport in question will become the poster boy for one quality above all others. In a similar manner, cricket is known as being the ultimate gentlemanly pursuit, the gridiron is now the concussion playground, and football is the pin-up for cynicism. This is the perceived wisdom, the groupthink phenomenon, and is inaccurate – or at least unfair - for the most part.
Footballers are typically only as conniving as their counterparts in other arenas, and certainly not significantly more so. The issue with football is that the rules and common practices of the game give players plenty of leeway when it comes to the likes of tactical fouling or diving. Rather than shoring up anomalies in the laws of the game or the approach of the games officiators, the powers that be have plumped for the stick over the carrot.
So we find ourselves with the green card – a “symbolic reward” which is now being retrospectively awarded in Italy’s Serie B. The initiative is partly as a result of the match-fixing scandals that have recently embroiled Italian football, with Serie B President Andrea Abodi saying “respect has to come first and that’s where this green card comes into play.” And while the league makes efforts to adopt both the policy and the principle, with the league’s official website festooned with green and a “Respect Wall” in the kid’s section, it is hard to see the green card taking off or working as intended.
Firstly, there is no value to the card. That a player will be rewarded with the virtual card for instigating fair play does little to dissuade a player with promotion or a win bonus on his mind. The reward for essentially following the rules of the game – specifically the more “gentlemanly” aspects – also gives the false impression that this does not occur naturally within the game.
One of the more enduring images of Paolo di Canio’s time in the Premier League is his refusal to score into an open goal as his opposing goalkeeper lay prone with an injury. There is something almost saintly in the act until you remember that the same man later led Lazio fans in fascist salutes at the Stadio Olimpico; however you feel about that juxtaposition, there have always been glimpses of sportsmanship even in the modern game. Vincent Kompany’s reaction to winning the League Cup? Commiserating with his opponents of course. A virtual reward would demean both the gesture and the man.
More importantly, the green card is more of an attempt to clean the image of the sport and not the sport itself, the footballing version of Lance Armstrong’s crocodile tears. Abodi confirmed this when launching the plans, stating that “we need to provide good examples because clearly they’re lacking lately.” This is less papering over the cracks and more hiding your uneaten carrots under the mashed potato. It is a somewhat crude attempt at showing people what it is thought they want to see.
That the league is promoting fair play and respect is encouraging, and for that reason it is hard to be too critical. Unfortunately, real change requires both stick and carrot, regardless of whether you’ve hidden them under your mashed potatoes again.