Like millions of other people around the world I’ve been watching a lot of football these past two weeks. Day after day wasting hours of sunshine watching the best soccer-football players in the world display their talents in stadiums jammed with adoring thousands – and by multi-millions around the world. Like most I have been impressed by the spectacle of the games, and depressed by the thought of the billions of dollars spent to stage them in a country which can’t afford decent housing or safe drinking water for much of its population.
Watching the games has been like watching a large slice of life unfold. There on the sunbaked fields of Brazil I have seen men of high talent strut their stuff, sometimes with pride, sometimes with arrogance, sometimes with courage. I have watched men with authority make arbitrary decisions firmly, wisely, applying the rules of conduct for life on the pitch. And I have watched them make hasty and obviously wrong decisions bringing joyous outcome to some, distraught dismay to others; yellow cards held aloft when red was clearly called for, red cards waved when surely yellow would have sufficed.
Not unlike purveyors of justice in the wider game of life where our courts so often confuse and dismay us with bewildering judgment calls that see minor punishments for major offences, and majors for minor infractions.
And just like life in the wider sense I have watched soccer professionals with reputations for high integrity challenge for a high ball with elbows aimed for a rivals face; or for a low ball over the top with studs targeted to hit a spot where no pads protect.
These were the violent ones, the ones who played with skills they hoped would deceive the referee or at least intimidate a rival. Not unlike a workplace where the bully goes undetected at worst or only mildly reprimanded if caught.
Then there were the many “cheaters” like the chasing player who losing a race for the ball tries to place himself between his rival and the referee as he grabs a shirt to slow his rival down; or in a goal mouth scramble just to keep him from jumping for a header.
It’s only a little bit of cheating, as is the obviously faked and all too prevalent “dive.” Nothing harmful if you can get away with it. A bit like telling a “white lie”. Sure it’s deceitful, but if it doesn’t really harm anyone – and might even help someone – what’s small cheat from time to time? It’s an excuse I’ve always consoled myself with, but when I see the shirt-puller-no-real-harm-done cheats on the football field I’m not so sure of myself.
A little bit of cheating on the soccer pitch diminishes the quality of the game, just as a little bit of cheating off the pitch diminishes the quality of life in general. So, maybe watching the beautiful game made less so by the small time charlatans who cheapen it, can teach us all a lesson in the big arena in which we all play our allotted quota of time on earth.
It was in an entirely different context that Alfred, Lord Tennyson, warned of the dangers of minor offences eroding once cherished values. He was talking – or his characters were – about having faith in each other and about the need for implicit trust. And one warned the other that it took only “a little rift within the lute that by and by will make the music mute….Or little pitted speck in garnered fruit that rotting inward slowly moulders all…..”
Tennyson’s warning was for lovers who must trust each other. I unabashedly steal it as a “canary-in-the-mine” warning of pending disaster as we, in sport or our personal lives, accept ever decreasing standards in dress, good manners, respect for the rules and each other.
In professional sport the “rift” and “pitted speck” have been eating away for years. The end may still be decades away, but is inevitable.
In life? That’s something only we, each for ourselves, can answer.