There are two mentalities within the game that while being polar opposites can exist without impeding on one another. They are the use of gamesmanship and good old fashioned sportsmanship.
Unlike the latter, gamesmanship isn’t taught in schools. Every good physical education teacher should drill into students the correct way to play sports and the times when competition is suspended in order to do the decent thing. The easiest example of this is throwing the ball out of play when is someone is injured and then the opposing team returns it as a thank you gesture.
Gamesmanship is the evil cousin of sportsmanship. It’s a tool used by professionals that see the potential gains too large to allow any area of exploitation left untapped. It doesn’t mean breaking the rules but it does mean stretching them in order to get the desired outcome. The two schools of thought cannot exist in the same moment. A footballer couldn’t be sporting and apply a form of gamesmanship at the same time.
The previous weekend presented us with three good examples that are spread along the spectrum from sporting to game playing.
The first point of reference was Chelsea striker Loic Remy against Stoke City. The reigning champions were 1-0 down with only five minutes left on the clock. An onrushing Jack Butland, the Stoke ‘keeper, came toward Remy in such a fashion that the striker had to treat him like he was a hurdle at Aintree.
Rémy DOESN'T dive and he doesn't get rewarded. You dive there it's a pen.
— #CarefreeDaily (@CarefreeDaily) November 7, 2015
Chelsea believed they had grounds for a penalty. It was clear had Remy allowed contact and gone down he would have gotten one. Instead he tried to remain on his feet and pursue the chance. His honesty served to penalise him. Their was no reward for trying to do the right thing. Given the situation again he would probably go down looking for the spot kick.
Which brings us to incident number two. Manchester City midfielder Raheem Sterling was denied a penalty against Aston Villa after minimal contact with Ciaran Clark in the first half of a 0-0 draw.
Replays show the defender stood on Sterling’s foot and there was enough contact to warrant the claim. However, the accusation is Sterling overplayed his part, so the referee didn’t buy into it.
Perhaps Raheem did add the theatrics to the foul but that is because in the modern game players overreact to ensure the officials are aware of illegal contact. A player that hasn’t been met with enough force to genuinely send him to the ground, but goes there anyway, is applying gamesmanship. He isn’t cheating but he isn’t being entirely truthful.
The final point comes from the same match. The oldest of sporting gestures, returning the ball after it had been thrown out for an injured player on your team, was transferred into a vile act of gamesmanship.
Rudy Gestede decided not to gently throw the ball to the Manchester City goalkeeper, instead he hurled it with pace at Joe Hart. It’s unclear if the Villa player just wanted to make it a goal kick and was displeased when Hart signalled he’d accept it instead.
Some have suggested Hart should have just stepped out of the way and allowed this to happen. But a sporting gesture shouldn’t come with extra terms and conditions. What made the situation worse was the manner in which Gestede ran toward Hart, presumably hoping he wouldn’t be able to control the ball.
Instead it went for a corner kick. At this point one of the Villa players should have seen sense and just kicked it out for a goal kick. From the ball into the box Gestede hit it over the bar, had it gone in there would have been a very difficult decision for the ref to make.
Arsenal have been there twice, on both sides of the crime, and even replayed a game against Sheffield United because of it.
We all want a game that rewards players who stay on their feet and punishes cheats and divers. At the moment there’s nothing in place to protect honesty but too much protecting deception.
There will always be some gamesmanship. From subtle name calling and whispers to player’s acting like they’ve been shot after a soft foul. European competition is particularly rife with it nowadays. The excuses for its existence shouldn’t be so freely accepted when it begins to erode away at sportsmanship.
If we don’t protect the good natured side of sport, one day they will be teaching gamesmanship in schools.