Sport has been an important part of my life. I played football for my schools and college. I was in my grammar school athletics squad. I played representative table tennis. I was not bad at cricket, useless at tennis, and hopeless at golf[i]
. I never played rugby because I was too small, though I grew fast in my teens. My son Andrew played rugby representing Surrey schools and went on to play for a decent club side in Madrid in the Spanish League. I no longer play any of these sports but I still watch them occasionally live but more frequently on television. Last year on holiday in Saint Lucia I got a ticket to see the third day of the test match between the West Indies and England and saw the English captain Joe Root score a fine century. And recently while in Madrid my son and his partner Laura took me to see Atletico Madrid play Athletic Bilbao. Laura is from Bilbao and so we were disappointed to see them lose but it’s a wonderful stadium and was a great experience.
Increasingly all these sports are suffering from maladministration. This ranges from downright incompetence to flagrant corruption. Take the beautiful game, football. The peak of football is the World Cup organised by FIFA. Some FIFA officials have been convicted of various crimes involving the acceptance of bribes for taking the decision to hold the competition in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. But the competition was still held in Russia and will still be held in Qatar. Now the World Athletics Championships were held in Qatar last year and they were a disaster. The FBI and the Internal Revenue Service set up investigations into the decision making process to give Qatar the hosting rights. Qatar is pursuing a strategy to develop the country as a sports host to encourage tourism, despite the fact that there is virtually no tradition of these kinds of sports there. It was also intended that this would draw in spectators from neighbouring states but they are all boycotting Qatar these days so nobody came. Because of the extreme heat the stadium was air-conditioned but the longer races were still run on the roads outside. The women’s marathon was started at nearly midnight but the temperature was 32° C while the humidity was 70%. Half the athletes failed to complete the course, many of them feeling ill. Many athletes complained but the organisers shrugged these off.
Back to football. So what will the 2022 World Cup be like? Well, firstly, it will be the first World Cup not to be held in May, June or July. It is instead scheduled for late November up to the final on 18th
December, Qatar National Day. This is right in the middle of the football season in most of the Northern Hemisphere so there will be huge disruption to the major European clubs, which employ most of the best footballers from all over the world. Clubs are used to losing their best African players when the African nations tournament is played in January, but to lose most of them!
One commentator, on hearing the news, said it just shows that FIFA don’t care about football. They just care about money. And for some of them, it’s money in their own pockets. Accusations of corruption have been made concerning how Qatar won the hosting rights. A FIFA internal investigation and report unsurprisingly cleared Qatar of any wrong doing, but the chief investigator Michael J. Garcia has described FIFA’s report on his inquiry as “materially incomplete and erroneous”.
And then there are all the shiny new stadia. How are they built? By the employment of thousands of migrant workers who, according to Amnesty International, are “forced labour” with severe human rights abuses and many deaths.
Back home we have our own problems. The Football Association (FA) would say that it wants to preserve what is great in the beautiful game and has devised rules regarding betting in football to help protect the integrity and future of football. But somehow these have allowed it to award rights to bookmaker Bet365 to show FA Cup ties on its website and app. The matches are available to anyone who had placed a bet or put a deposit in their account in the 24 hours before kick-off. How beautiful is that?
But I don’t bet so that does not spoil my enjoyment of the beautiful game. It just increases the chance of problem gambling. What does spoil my enjoyment is the use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR). I was brought up to believe that the decision of the referee is final. Even if you think he’s made a mistake, if you challenge his authority he may caution you and if you persist with it you will be sent off for ungentlemanly conduct. That is how the game is played. And it’s one of the great things about sport. The British codified games like football, cricket, tennis, golf, rugby, athletics and so on and exported them all round the world through their colonies and their trading links. And with a few minor variations these sports are all played to the same set of rules.
But now, because of something called “technology”, at crucial moments in the game like goals and penalties the VAR, actually an official in a studio many miles away, looks exhaustively at video replays from different angles, sometimes in slow motion, before coming to a decision. He may say that the referee was right in his decision. But frequently he says he was wrong and so the decision is reversed. And so that famous principle that the referee is always right has been broken.
There are many things wrong with this but here’s just a few.
What I just said about the principle that the referee is always right.
The VAR is only supposed to change a decision if the error “was clear and obvious”. But then why have slow motion replays? If they are necessary then by definition the error was not clear and obvious.
It spoils the fans’ enjoyment. There is a great thrill when your side scores a goal. It always uplifts one. But now it doesn’t because you’re not sure until the wretched VAR has had his turn. And that can take three minutes (remember clear and obvious).
It’s an expensive system requiring numerous cameras. Therefore it can only be operated in the top division. But football should be played to the same rules at every level in the game from the plutocrats who play in the Premier League to the school boys and girls playing in their schools.
Let’s turn to another beautiful game, cricket. And the best form of cricket is the five-day test match. Playing over five days allows both teams to ‘test’ each other to the full. These are teams with the best players in each country. There have been five day test marches since Victorian times. Sometimes test matches are over in four days and occasionally three. This creates problems for broadcasters from whom most of the money comes, and so this creates a problem for the organisers who want to maximise income.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) is the global governing body of cricket. It was founded as the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909 by representatives from Australia, England and South Africa. It was renamed as the International Cricket Conference in 1965, and took up its current name in 1989. It is headquartered in Dubai and has the motto “Cricket for good.”
In October 2017, the ICC approved a request for a four-day test match between South Africa and Zimbabwe, which started on 26th December 2017 and ended on the second day, 27th December. The ICC have further trialled four-day tests and believe they can save money with lower fixed costs. But does cricket exist to make money or make money to exist? The whole point of a five-day test is that you work back from the possibility of the fifth day. Some of the best test matches have lasted a full five days and still finished as a draw. Sometimes all three results are possible right up to the last session of play. This prospect drives the pace of the game; how a batsman builds an innings; how a captain sets his field and asks his bowlers to bowl. In cricket,unlike any other sport, a captain can declare his side’s innings closed when he judges that it gives him the best chance to win the game.
That the ICC are reported as making four-days tests mandatory shows that they do not understand the game and are not living up to their motto of “cricket for good”.
Now spoiler alert. In Rugby Union I am a Saracens fan. I live quite close to their stadium so I support them for reasons of geography. But I also support them because they have some of the best players, are great to watch and are the reigning English and European champions. They have dominated the English Premiership in recent seasons; have seven players in the England Six-Nation squad and several other international players from Wales, Scotland, Australia and South Africa.
But it seems they have been cheating. The English Premiership imposes a salary cap for each club of £7 million. This is a system borrowed from American sport where it is designed to ensure parity. In November, Saracens were found guilty of breaching the cap in the past three seasons and were fined £5.36 million and, more seriously, deducted 35 points which meant they would have a very tough task in avoiding relegation.
But in the following weeks, with constant dialogue between the club and the authorities, it was found that the club was still in breach of the cap and were deducted a further 35 points making relegation a certainty. Their Chairman Nigel Wray, who has bankrolled the club over many years and seemingly built a powerhouse, had entered into investment agreements with some of Saracens’ star players. Businesses were set up for their benefit using his money. He argued this was not salary and was also thinking of their futures after they stop playing, usually in their thirties, sometimes earlier due to injury in what is a very physical contact sport.
This argument is specious and was not accepted. Wray has resigned as Chairman. The management are trying to offload players to get under the cap but few clubs are interested. This is not out of spite but because they are probably all close to the cap themselves and so do not have room in their own salary structure to take any of Saracens' highly paid stars.
I do not defend Saracens in any way. But what will be the result of this?
The Premiership relegates one club each season. With half the season still to run that is already decided, thus taking away much of the interest and motivation.
Next season Saracens will play in the so-called English National League against much weaker teams. The England coach Eddie Jones will not be impressed with this and is unlikely to pick the players who today play such an important role in his squad because they will not be getting the same match experience.
In 2021 Warren Gatling, the coach of the British and Irish Lions, will select a squad to play the reigning World Champions South Africa. Again he is unlikely to pick any players who have spent a season in a lower league.
Some of the players may want to leave to avoid this risk but they are unlikely to maintain the same salary levels for obvious reasons unless they move to France, but then they won’t be available for international selection.
So by enforcing the rules that they created Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) have delivered a hammer blow not only to Saracens who may not recover but also to England’s chances in the Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions' chances on tour of South Africa.
Did Saracens break the rules? Yes. But did they win all these championships because of money? I don’t really think so. The club has the best academy for developing young players, perhaps in the world. They spot talent early, when the players are still at school. Two of their best players Owen Farrell, the current England captain and Maro Itoje, perhaps the next one, both went to my daughter’s school which also educated George Ford, also an England player.
In my view the salary cap should not apply to talent the club has developed. It should apply to players brought in on transfers from other clubs. In America the clubs don’t develop their own players. They are developed through the highly competitive High School system and then by the even more competitive College system. Then they are drafted with the bottom club from the previous season picking the top rated player of its choice.
There is no draft in English rugby and a great club like Saracens should not be destroyed because it developed some of the best talent in the world.
The great French footballer Eric Cantona , when disgusted by some inexplicable selection decision, went up to each selector in turn and said “Vous êtes fou! Vous êtes fou!”[ii]
Ironically I taught myself football, cricket and table tennis while I had lessons for tennis and golf. Perhaps there’s a lesson here. If so, it’s too late for me.