In this World Cup, Arjen Robben has surely secured his place among the ranks of Luis Suárez and Pepe as one of the most loathed players in world football. But why? Unlike Suárez he doesn’t have a history of racism and cannibalistic tendencies, and unlike Pepe he isn’t a red-eyed psychopath.
Robben is also one of the most talented and successful players of a generation, a supremely gifted dribbler with an almost supernatural ability to get past his man and wrong-foot defenders in the box. He has been one of the top players in Europe for the past few years and was arguably Bayern Munich’s best player last season in a squad glutted with superstars.
He has been one of the star players of this World Cup, beginning with his two awe-inspiring goals against Spain – the one showing his immaculate technique as he brought the ball down between Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos before coolly finishing.
For the second, he burnt the entire Spanish team for sheer pace in a 50m sprint. His breathtaking close control also won the match against Mexico, where it seemed, at times, that Robben was facing off against the whole Mexican midfield and defence as he cut in from the right flank.
I asked a friend for the rationale behind the tide of undying hatred for Robben: his rather succinct response was that he is a cheat, followed by some mumbling about his “asshole face”. But when I pointed out that there are countless cheats in football, it was simply offered that he is an “asshole” and a “bastard”. Why is he a cheat? Because he has developed himself a reputation for throwing himself to the floor crying foul at every opportunity?
Cheating is an essential part of sport and football is no exception. Maradona, arguably the greatest player ever to kick a ball, is also the most famous cheat in sports – losing out to Lance Armstrong in my calculations, if cycling is in fact to be considered a sport and not an opportunity for hipsters to ponce around smugly claiming their low-level carbon footprint.
His most infamous moment was the “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where Maradona scored by out jumping Peter Shilton with his hand as England lost to Argentina. The English have never forgiven him.
When questioned about whether he, in fact, had used his hand to score the goal, he infamously replied: “A little bit by the hand of God, a little by the head of Maradona.”
Personally, I’ve always felt Maradona’s career was all the more impressive for the fact that he can’t remember his years in Napoli because he was doing Tony Montana-sized amounts of cocaine – so much, in fact, that he even allegedly ended up smuggling bricks of the linesman’s friend for the Camorra – the Neapolitan mafia.
Much of the animosity towards Robben stems from his reputation in the English press as a supreme representative of the immoral and decadent foreign footballing culture polluting the natural virtue of the English game.
He is seen as a ruthless serial diver who will lose his feet at any opportunity to get his team ahead. The English have a particularly visceral reaction to diving, which they see as a crime akin to infanticide on the pitch. At the same time, many of these same pundits claim vicious tackles designed to inflict deliberate bodily harm as a virtuous part of a “man’s game”.
Vicious bullies and thugs masquerading as footballers who populate the lower divisions of the English game, populating the squads of teams like Bolton and West Ham, are seen as austere, honest journeymen footballers representing the values of ye olde Albion in an age of pampered, super-rich celebrity footballers, oligarch owners, and a game where everything is for sale. The Premier League is dominated by foreign players, because, simply put, even the best English players on show are not up to the standards of Suárez, Yaya Touré, David Silva or Eden Hazard.
Nostalgia abounds for the days of the old muddy pub kick-around, weak lager, bad food and cheap tickets, despite the fact that English footballing culture used to be closely linked to a bunch of neo-Nazis who were never happier than when they were kicking the heads of poor Pakistani shop owners.
But, to be fair, there is also a proud anti-fascist heritage in working class British footballing culture. I think much of the celebration of on-the-pitch thuggery resonates from nostalgia for old ideas of British masculinity that have been lost with the deindustralisation of the country and the smashing of the unions by Margaret Thatcher and her New Labour successors, the loss of empire, and the changing demographics of Britain.
The great British Marxist historian Perry Anderson once traced the peculiarities and “backwardness” of British culture to a premature and incomplete bourgeois revolution in the 17th century, which produced a rather pathetic ruling class. The way in which the British game has been shoddily auctioned off to the highest bidder at the expense of developing local talent that is overpriced, overrated, and lacking both in footballing intelligence and technique makes sense of such nostalgia for British domination that is fuelled by British talent. This nostalgia is pushed around the world through the continued Anglophile domination of the footballing media, particularly on the African continent.
In a recent piece in the Guardian, Aldo Mazzucchelli pointed this out:
“From the outset, for the British, football was a tool for the moralisation and education of the bon sauvage. As far as I can tell, looking on from Montevideo, they continue to understand it in such a way. They keep trying to use it in order to send out moral messages.
“Britain used football to forge character on the playing fields of Eton and Oxford. There they developed that complex form of civilisatory hypocrisy known as ‘sportsmanship’. Today, ’fair play’ is the grandchild of this petty set of island morals, except that now it is soaked in Coca-Cola and global marketing.
“It’s interesting to remember that the discussion at the time of the creation of the current rules of football included a chapter on whether kicking the opponent below the knee, or ‘hacking’, should be considered a legitimate part of the game. In the end the idea was defeated. If it somehow sneaked into the ethics of the game as the British understand it, it was a form of cheating. The British would never accept any cheating. They want to play football without anyone being cheated. This is how they understand the game. Instead of playing it, they understand it.”
Now, where does Robben fit into all of this? The reason I go on about British footballing culture is because, for a pale-faced South African such as myself who is not a polyglot, my experience of international football is largely interpolated through British footballing culture, and only in terms of the English language.
At his best, Robben is one of the best players on the planet; the sight of him running at a defence surely gives the likes of Piqué bed-wetting nightmares after what he did against Spain earlier in the tournament.
He also, like many other top footballers, is a highly paid and ruthless professional who will do anything to win, as evidenced by his alleged dive in the dying minutes of Sunday’s game against a plucky and crafty Mexico. The resultant penalty, which Klaas-Jan Huntelaar put away, gave Holland a place in the quarterfinals. Now, in the circumstances of the match, when a player is surrounded by defenders in the box in added time with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, how many top players wouldn’t go down a little too easily if a defender sticks out a foot?
The question of the ethics of diving is something that deserves to be interrogated with a tad more analytical weight than the instinctive moralism of the English footballing punditocracy allows. Diving is considered a particularly grievous offence through the act of tricking a referee into thinking a player has been fouled. Often this involves simulating pain through the act of rolling around on the ground writhing, an act which particularly incenses rugby fans who are conned into watching football.
The formulation goes as follows:
a) There is something particularly morally disagreeable about the act of fooling the referee into giving a foul and/or pretending to have suffered grievous bodily harm in the process
b) It is considered unsportsmanlike to tackle a player unfairly or harm him deliberately through an unfair tackle.
c) The act of diving goes beyond just professionalism, and reflects badly on the character of the player, particularly if he is a serial diver.
Key to sporting ethics is a sense of fair play as a being objectively good, but in conflict with this is the supreme value placed on winning contests. As former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad put it: “Winners win and losers lose.” While commentators place value on ‘fair play’ as an ethical and professional imperative, the value of winning supersedes that of fair play. Perhaps in a society in which the high plutocrats of the financial sector are rewarded with massive taxpayer-funded rewards for ‘cheating’, clinging to the ethics of fair play makes sense. As Nietzsche puts it: “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”
Even sports that are relative latecomers to the process of professionalisation –such as rugby – are beginning to see players simulate being victims of foul play. In most cases after an act of foul play, the player who has committed the foul pretends he hasn’t and that the victim is cheating and ‘simulating’. When this happens, is the accusing player not as morally reprehensible as the diver?
In an era in which the sport has been completely professionalised and vast sums of money are at stake, it should be unsurprising that players resort to diving to get ahead, when, particularly in contests such as the World Cup, the margins of error are so small. In a match like this, Robben choosing to go down rather easily is understandable, but how many other players would have acted otherwise in his circumstances?
Even celebrated English players who reportedly personify the essence of the English game, such as Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, have dived many times in their careers, but they are not hated with the same intensity as Robben. Most of the top players in the world are serial divers – Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi and co: should we view them as despicable human beings too? It is a particularly English thing to think one’s antics in pursuit of victory also reflect badly on their character.
Robben perhaps is also loathed because, after his sublime introduction to world football in the 2004 Euro Championship, he moved to Chelsea, the trendsetter of contemporary footballing oligarchy. Chelsea embraced a decidedly anti-English footballing aesthetic under José Mourinho in which winning was fine even if you dived or badgered the referee to death. He was seen as a prodigal Mourinho player, willing to do whatever it took. John Terry, who was seen as “Mr England” for years before he was revealed to be a open racist, is an exceptionally dirty player, but has never come in for the same sort of stick in the English press – even after it turned out he was a racist shite. Robben is perhaps forever associated with an overpaid, decadent foreign mercenary footballing elite who cheat to win and who prospered under Mourinho.
Cristiano Ronaldo went through a similar process of vilification for serial diving, and even more unforgivably asking for Rooney to be sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s nuts in the 2006 World Cup. According to the English press, it was more unethical to ask for the referee to produce a red card than to stamp on another player’s testicles. Ronaldo’s reign of villainy ended when he moved to Real Madrid, where such things were an acceptable part of the Spanish game and his sheer brilliance made it difficult for the Brits to continue their hate campaign.
It’s worth asking the question of whether turning the likes of Robben into pantomime villains simply further distract us from the real showpiece villains, particularly Sepp Blatter’s mob, known to the world as Fifa. This mafia that continues to rake in its tax-free billions, but which the football moralists continue to give a free pass or even banal praise for hosting yet another successful World Cup.
Many of the same conservative football fans who moralise incessantly about diving and ‘cheats’ are resistant to the further introduction of video technology into football. If one wants to end ‘simulation’, allowing for a video referee to judge the legitimacy of penalty appeals would solve this particular problem, but the purists continue to resist. Diving is part of the modern game, the battle against it is lost and moralising about it won’t change anything.
Until that changes, I will continue to enjoy the sight of Robben terrorising defenders without one iota of guilt.