Cynicism and unsportsmanlike behavior — how far can it go!?

When you see this heading, perhaps you will find it to be of some consolation that this time I am not talking about incidents in handball. But what I will comment on involves a mentality that suggests that there is no reason why we would not have similar problems in other forms in our own sport. Perhaps the rules in handball do not lend themselves to quite the same behavior, but I am sure also we have some loopholes.

I should not really keep you in suspense any longer. My story involves football/soccer, and more specifically something that happened in a Champions League match between Ajax Amsterdam and Real Madrid, two of football’s most prestigious clubs, a little over a week ago. First I need to explain that in football, unlike in handball, a warning (a ‘yellow card’) is not necessarily wiped out or meaningless once the game is over. In football, whether under FIFA, UEFA or national federations, there are regulations which mean that if a player accumulates a certain number of yellow cards during a competition (or a segment thereof) , then he will be suspended for a match.

So late in the match I mentioned, there were two key players from Real Madrid who knew that if they received one more yellow card before the match ended, then they would be suspended in the next match. And as their team was leading 4-0 close to the end, and as the next game, the last one in the group play, was essentially meaningless, it would be preferable to be suspended for that meaningless match. If they instead played in that match and received another yellow card, they would be ineligible in the next, much more important game, namely the first round of the subsequent knock-out competition.

So, at their own initiative, or more likely at the instigation of their notoriously selfish and cynical coach, they caused (=forced) the referee to give each of them a yellow card for time-wasting, an absurd action in a game that their team had already won. The Amsterdam spectators and the TV commentators immediately understood what was up, and the players got the nasty reaction that they deserved.

But the saddest part came later. When media started criticizing the players and coach, the reaction was totally cynical. “There was nothing strange about it; this is what many players do all the time”, was one of the responses. The coach naturally denied any involvement but defended his players. “Of course we expect our players to behave in the best interests of the club”, was the comment of another team official.

And even worse: in response to newspaper and web reports, the ‘general public’ started weighing in. And I am talking about people with no particular sympathies for Real Madrid but just regular football fans. Most of the comments involved criticizing the media for “making a big deal about it”. Others saw it as a reaction of envy aimed specifically at Real Madrid. Yet others came up with the wonderful suggestion that “the players should be applauded for drawing their yellow cards through harmless action, instead of doing it by kicking the leg of an opponent”. And then there were some who criticized the referee “for not outsmarting the players and (illegally)refusing to give them the yellow cards that they had to be given under the rules”.

I can have some understanding for cynical and unsportsmanlike reactions expressed in the heat of the battle, at the moment something happens. But to find that ‘sports fans’ calmly, a day or two later, find it normal and appropriate to go out of their way to express such opinions, that tells me that regrettably these ‘sports fans’ have very little sense for what sportsmanship is all about, and it tells me that players and referees in any sport must expect to be treated and judged in that kind of fashion. If they act properly, then they must expect to be considered stupid or soft, but if they commit a ‘professional foul’ or an unsportsmanlike act that benefits the team, then they will be celebrated and considered smart.