Soccer or rugby?

After the crushing 36-0 defeat to South Africa in a group game, the English players mutinied against an inept coach pursuing what seemed a policy of drift, largely took over the running of the side and its training themselves, and revised the tactics which sensationally took their team all the way to the final.

The recent revival of England’s rugby team in the World Cup tournament in France, thrashed 36-0 by South Africa then running the same team close in the final, has led to a crop of dubious comparisons. Comparisons between rugby and soccer, very much in favour of rugby, but, as the old saying goes, comparisons are odious.

Even some who know soccer well, and should therefore know better, have insisted on rugby’s moral superiority. You can, of course, understand a certain patriotic euphoria, as the England rugger team rose the depths of massive humiliation in their first 36-0 match to fight — and this was probably the right phrase — their way to the final. The story behind the story appears to be that after the crushing defeat, the players mutinied against an inept coach pursuing what seemed a policy of drift, largely took over the running of the side and its training themselves, and revised the tactics which sensationally took their team all the way to the final.

And what tactics! Even those hell bent on proclaiming the superiority of rugby over soccer had to admit that England, in the popular phrase, “won ugly”. Rugby, at the best of times, is hardly an aesthetic spectacle. There are the scrums, with their heaving and shoving. There are the infinite scrapping and scrambling for the ball on the ground. The equally infinite stoppages. And England’s team was functional to a degree. It ground out its results, eschewing anything as visually exciting as the three quarter movements which once graced the game; four fleet players dashing down the field, whipping the ball from one to another. No. The revitalised England side prevailed through beef, brawn, stopping the opposition from playing. And hoping to prevail with the kicked penalty goals of blond Jonny Wilkinson: and thereby hangs another tale, on which we shall expand.

Never, nowadays, could rugby be called, as soccer is, for better or for worse, ‘The Beautiful Game’. Which is not for a moment to make a moral case for football. Whereas rugby to me has always seemed essentially a minor sport blown up into a major one — Wales and the international fixtures apart, attendances at matches tend to be minimal — soccer, so immensely and globally popular, alas reflects all too vividly the defects as well as the virtues of its society.

It was I, after all, who at once, on its formation, nicknamed the Premier League, ‘The Greed Is Good League’; and the nickname has stuck. You may remember that it was so to speak the bastard child of the Football Association and its Chief Executive Graham Kelly and the major English clubs. I felt then and I still feel now that Kelly, who, by an irony, had come to the FA from his position as Secretary of the Football League, basically sold the League out. Leaving what might be called the rump of the League, all those many other clubs, to exist as best they might, while the Premier League clubs did their hugely profitable deal with television. The game has been severely unbalanced professionally ever since. Yet the historical mission of the Football Association is to be above the conflict, to hold the ring, to look after every aspect of English football, from top to bottom.

That there has been a moral degeneration in the game is all too evident. Money doesn’t only talk, it shrieks aloud deafening all other considerations. How otherwise could such a sinister figure as former Prime Minister of Thailand Sinawatra take over Manchester City without even a murmur of dissent from either the Premiership or the FA? Very recently, the present Thai government and judiciary, who want to extradite him for massive corruption, have again demanded his return. Amnesty International have accused him of the brutal torture of political opponents, the mass murder of minor drug dealers. But Manchester City, whatever their 6-0 defeat at Chelsea, have thrived on his money, buying a host of costly foreign players.

Comparisons, in football’s disfavour, are made between their relative supporters. We know all too well the obscene chants, the drunkenness, the even-organised violence, of soccer fans. The behaviour of rugby fans in Paris was, in contrast, impeccable. But rugby by and large has a middle class following. Football, for all the “prawn sandwich” culture derided by Roy Keane, is still largely a game with a working class and even underclass following.

As to the fatuous insistence that rugby players, with their deference to referees, are morally superior to soccer’s. In their dreams! Rugger players, gouging, elbowing, punching, commit often with impunity the kind of violence which in soccer results in automatic dismissal.

Why hector referees who ignore so much? And note that when, in 1924, the first ever player, in an international match, Brownlie of New Zealand, was sent off by referee Freethy at Twickenham (New Zealanders never spoke to Freethy again) it was another 40 years before the next international player, Colin Meads, was sent off, playing for New Zealand against Scotland at Murrayfield.

A final point. England rugby have long relied for points on Jonny Wilkinson’s immaculate penalty kicks. Yet, in the last analysis, isn’t that a cheap way to success, an implicit confession of failure to score tries from open play? The soccer equivalent of England’s rugby methods would be those teams which play dourly in defence all through a game, hoping to win eventually on penalties.