Football is more than just scoring goals. By Viknesh Pillai
There are many moments in the history of football that have displayed a virtuous spirit. However, as fans we either lose sight of the beauty of the game or it gets beaten out of us through the twin evils of crass commercialism and a win-at-all-costs mentality. These moments of goodness serve as a reminder to always aspire to something greater. Here are seven that put beauty back into the beautiful game.
1. Where: Highbury, England
When: Arsenal vs Liverpool, Barclays Premier League, 25 March 1997
It might be that a good act gets magnified when done by someone who is not one of the game’s good guys. Robbie Fowler, he of the miming cocaine-sniffing as a goal celebration and homosexual taunting of Graeme Le Saux, certainly does not conform to the good guy archetype. Yet we witnessed exactly that when Fowler’s Liverpool faced Arsenal. Fowler was through on goal when he was apparently fouled by the onrushing goalkeeper David Seaman. The referee wasted time no time in awarding a penalty but Fowler, to everyone’s amazement, rose and motioned to the referee that it was not a penalty and that he had tripped on his own. Despite his protestations and apologies to the Arsenal players, the referee was unmoved and the penalty stood. Fowler went on to take it but it was poorly struck and Seaman managed to palm it away. Unfortunately, Fowler’s teammate reacted quickest and scored the rebound to give Liverpool the lead. They went on to win the game. For his honesty though, Fowler was awarded UEFA’s Fair Play award.
2. Where: Goodison Park, England
When: Everton vs West Ham, Barclays Premier League, 16 December 2000
Another player who often stood apart from all things good and fair was Paolo Di Canio. Some of his more notorious acts include pushing a referee in retaliation for getting sent off (and then having the cheek to say the referee took a dive) and performing a Nazi salute with his club’s fans. But there was one time where Di Canio shocked us with an amazing act of fair play. The match between Everton and Di Canio’s West Ham was delicately poised at 1-1 going into the 90th minute. As West Ham attacked, Everton keeper Paul Gerrard had to rush out of his penalty area to make a save. In doing so, he dislocated his knee and lay stricken outside the area. Di Canio’s team mates continued playing and crossed the ball towards him. Despite the opportunity to score what surely would have been the winning goal, Di Canio opted not to shoot. Instead, he caught the ball to halt play all the while pointing towards Gerrard, showing that some things were more important than winning that day.
3. Where: Shafa Stadium, Baku, Azerbaijan
When: Inter Baku vs Qarabag, Azerbaijan Premier League, 4 October 2015
In the moment mentioned earlier, it should be noted that Fowler did not intentionally miss his penalty; he stated in subsequent interviews that it was just a poor penalty. Instead the honour of deliberately not scoring an ill-gotten penalty goes to Qarabag. Who? Yes, exactly; that was our reaction too. Qarabag are the reigning league champions of Azerbaijan. When Qarabag faced Inter Baku, they were controversially awarded a penalty when Inter’s goalkeeper was adjudged to have fouled one of their players. Up stepped Elvin Mammadov (No. Don’t ask “who?” again. We’ve been through this already). High and wide he placed the undeserved penalty to the cheers and applause of the spectators and the Inter players. Mammadov and Qarabag were not the first player or team in football history to deliberately miss a penalty. But this shows that such acts can occur even away from the glitz and glamour of the big leagues with star names.
4. Where: Wembley Stadium, England
When: Barcelona vs Manchester United, UEFA Champions League Final, 28 May 2011
Carles Puyol more than most has demonstrated the virtues of fair play and respect. While there can be many examples to choose from, one of his most selfless acts occured on one of the grandest stages imaginable. In March, Puyol’s Barcelona teammate Eric Abidal was diagnosed with a tumour in his liver and had to undergo immediate surgery. Barcelona had a successful season and went on to play in the Champions League final (which is, oh, only the biggest match in club football). Abidal, barely two-and-a-half months on from the surgery, unbelievably made it back to play the entire match. As far as stories go, that in itself was amazing. But this script did not end there. Barcelona won and the usual practice would have been for Puyol as captain to lift the trophy. Instead, Puyol handed Abidal the captain’s armband so that he could lift that trophy in front of 85, 000 cheering spectators. When asked later, Puyol said he did it simply because Abidal deserved it the most.
5. Where: FNB Stadium, South Africa
When: Netherlands vs Spain, World Cup Final, 11 July 2010
A regular footballer who scores a goal in the World Cup final usually celebrates with unbridled joy and gusto but Andrés Iniesta isn’t any regular footballer. As he scored the winning goal barely five minutes before the end of the game, Iniesta wheeled away towards the corner flag and whipped off his jersey. Written on his undershirt in bold letters: “DANI JARQUE SIEMPRE CON NOSOTROS”. Dani Jarque was the captain of Espanyol. Nearly a year before the World Cup, while at a pre-season training camp in Italy, Jarque suffered a heart attack and died. He was just 26. Iniesta and Jarque had been teammates for the Spanish Under-21 side and despite the rivalry between their clubs (Barcelona and Espanyol respectively), they developed a strong friendship. Espanyol fans have always had a strong enmity towards Barcelona and its players. But Iniesta’s gesture transcended fault lines. Every time Barcelona has subsequently visited, Iniesta is the only opposition player to be applauded by the home fans. It should have been the moment when he soaked up a nation’s adulation for bringing home the World Cup; it was more important for Andrés Iniesta to remind the world simply that “Dani Jarque (is) always with us.”
6. Where: Vallecas, Spain
When: November 2014
Carmen Martinez Ayudo is an 85-year-old woman who lives in Vallecas – a working class area in Madrid, Spain – and had worked as a cleaner her whole life. Despite her quiet existence, she suddenly found herself running afoul of the authorities when she was evicted from her home. It turned out that her son had used the home as security for a €40, 000 loan and defaulted on payment. As ownership of the house had transferred to her son when her husband passed away, Ayudo was completely unaware of the debt (which had since grown to €70, 000) or the eviction until the police turned up to remove her from the property. A local-anti eviction committee did manage to secure a brief reprieve but this was merely a stop-gap measure. In stepped local football club Rayo Vallecano. Upon hearing of Ayudo’s plight, the club committed to not only finding her new accommodation but also to paying her rent for the rest of her life. And when everyone else was talking about what a grand gesture it was, Rayo’s coach Paco Jemez waved away the plaudits. He spoke of how it was only right that people live with dignity and that the club could not stand idly by in the face of Ayudo’s plight. There are many clubs that claim to be the best in the world. Maybe in a sporting sense that might be so but when it comes to being a part of their barrio (neighbourhood) and being socially conscious, none of them come close to Rayo Vallecano.
7. Where: San Siro, Italy
When: AC Milan vs Real Madrid, European Cup Semi-final, 19 April 1989
In 1989, AC Milan was a European football juggernaut on their way to winning back to back European Cups (what we now know as the UEFA Champions League). No team has managed that feat since. At the same time, English football was adrift serving a five-year ban from European football and facing a serious hooliganism problem. On 15 April, Liverpool were facing Nottingham Forest in a domestic cup competition at Hillsborough stadium. At 3:06pm the game was urgently halted as fans were climbing over the fence and spilling out on to the pitch. It turned out that they were desperately trying to escape a deadly human crush caused by an overcrowded pen. 96 people, all Liverpool fans, died that day. Just four days later AC Milan faced Real Madrid. A minute of silence was to be observed three minutes and six seconds into the match. As scheduled, when the referee blew his whistle everyone in the stadium stood in silence. Quite soon applause broke out to honour the dead. And then, far more poignantly, the AC Milan fans spontaneously began to sing the Liverpool anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Till today, it stands as one of the most moving, unexpected and kindest acts of solidarity between two sets of fans.