No More Acting Tough: It’s Time For Football To Stamp Out Cheating

Three days on from Marcelo’s farcical play-acting in the Volkswagen Arena and we’re all still giggling away on social media and indulging in endless gifs that reveal the bare-faced scale to the Brazilian’s con-trick.

Which is odd considering the Real Madrid defender consequently got away with it, UEFA’s decision not to impose retrospective punishment for the self-inflicted ‘head-butt’ meaning a cheat has prospered in full view of millions. And yes, for the pious among us, that includes a multitude of impressionable children who will plausibly mimic his actions in under 12s matches across the continent.

In that context, it would usually provoke ire over tittering. When Manuel Neuer clearly saw the ball cross the line in Germany’s World Cup clash with England in 2010 and later admitted to ‘fooling the referee’ by purposely reacting as if it hadn’t the game was replayed. Sure we got outclassed and battered 4-1 again, but the game was replayed. When Thierry Henry blatantly handled the ball to take France to those same finals – and deprive Ireland of their tournament dream – he was subsequently banned from travelling with the rest of the squad to South Africa.

Wait, I now see the problem. It really is a case of laugh or cry because we are no longer at the stage where incontestable cheating in football is the norm: it is rewarded.

For anyone who has spent the past week dwelling in a cave free of wifi and missed Marcelo’s ridiculous swindle it is damning in its simplicity. The full-back flicks a leg at Wolfsburg’s Maximilian Arnold before placing his head into his opponent’s chest and then throws himself pole-axed to the floor in faux-agony clutching his face. The linesman saw it. The television cameras caught it. Yet Arnold’s booking remains and Marcelo is to go unpunished.

At this point, I would usually seek an analogy to strengthen my argument but it is genuinely difficult to think of another example in life, sport or crime where a similar event occurs, where a person portrays themselves as a false victim in order to see another person punished. At a push perhaps a man walking into a supermarket and spraying an oily substance onto the aisle floor before purposely stepping on it and feigning a fall. This

At a push perhaps a man walking into a supermarket and spraying an oily substance onto the aisle floor before purposely stepping on it and feigning a fall. This takes place in clear view of the supermarket manager and CCTV footage irrefutably confirms the ruse yet the court sides with the man and awards him damages. That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it? Yet here in the biggest club tournament in the world, under the governance of an organisation that is desperate to shed its tarnished image, we have witnessed such bizarre depths of fraudulence leading to official consent.

Think of the sports that are most associated with cheating and your mind takes you to shady doctors administering banned substances in cycling, athletics, and now sadly, tennis. Yet cheating in its rule-breaking purest form – to act dishonestly to gain an advantage – has one ignoble stand-out ‘winner’: football.

Even in the infamously crooked confines of boxing, the universal disgust at Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear was sufficient to see him banned, reviled, and fined $3m. Last year cyclist Vincenzo Nibali was caught holding on to a team car during the Vuelta a Espana. He was promptly disqualified in disgrace. In athletics, you have to go all the way back to Zola Budd tripping Mary Decker at the 1984 Olympics.  Such was the welter of condemnation Budd’s career was affectively finished.

These domains are eternally blighted with the taint of corruption and drug use and are seemingly forever issuing well-intentioned promises to clean themselves up in a fight for morality the good guys are depressingly destined to lose. They are hardly bastions of virtue. Yet cheating it its purest form – an ace up the sleeve, a deception, a tampering with a cricket ball – is rare, punished with due severity and roundly abhorred.

Whereas in football, it is rife and accepted. Every single week we see a rogue’s gallery of trailing legs, ‘simulations’ (that is occasionally penalised with a yellow card, a deterrent so slight players are happy to take their shirts off in celebration to bear), time-wasting, play-acting, and an incalculable amount of law-breaking misdemeanours that is actively encouraged and abetted. On the same evening that Marcelo planted his afro into Arnold’s chest Danny Mills publicly rebuked Sergio Aguero for being too honest and staying on his feet.

For those among us – and dear god I hope it’s the majority – who believe this omnipresent cheating is beyond the pale we must accept that we are now way past the point of this being a moral stance. We cannot come at this with a ‘won’t-someone-think-of-the-children’ piety. Marcelo won’t have been shamed by the hysteria that accompanied his actions and the next time you witness such outrageous deception will be on a professional football pitch this weekend. The ship of immorality has long since sailed and with so much money, pressure, and reward on the line players these days do not prioritise ethics but rather consider only if they can get away with it. Presently they can.

So legislation is the answer and frustratingly it would be the answer. Should FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League or whichever authority grew the balls to actually stamp out this rampant cheating from the game instead of merely offering meaningless condemnation in the form of glib soundbites then within one season it would come to an end. Don’t believe me? Then try this. If Marcelo’s actions had resulted in him being banned from the game for one year would that make the rest of the serial offenders sit up and take note? Of course it would. Once hard-line punishments were imposed for incontestable instances of cheating then the game would clean up in a remarkably short space of time.

Until this happens – and it won’t natch – then the giggling will continue on social media whenever a player supposedly makes a fool of himself but actually gets exactly what he wants. But we should be under no illusions that the laughter is exclusively in-house. Others are laughing too, at a sport that has permitted cheating to infect and corrupt to its very core. And the joke just isn’t very funny anymore.