As the famous saying goes, football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen, but whether or not you agree with such a sentiment, it is hard to argue that football is a sport now worthy of it’s tag as the ‘beautiful game’, especially when compared to its distant cousin rugby. As the Rugby World Cup takes place in New Zealand and, with the football season well under way, I have found myself watching both sports on a regular basis. If you are not a fan of Rugby Union (or League) then I will not waste my time extolling the virtues of the sport to you. Instead I will use this opportunity to suggest that, whether you appreciate the game of rugby or not, you take 80 minutes to watch just one of the games at the World Cup over the next few weeks and, whilst doing so you ask yourself this question; What can football learn from rugby?
It’s a question which I have asked myself before and recently I found myself asking it again when the World Cup in New Zealand kicked off earlier this month. I promise you that asking this question while watching a rugby match will have a detrimental effect on the pleasure you gain from watching football. Ruining your enjoyment of football is not my goal, rather I want you to become aware of the harsh reality that football is not beautiful. Not when one takes the time to compare it to rugby or many other major sports for that matter.
At first it is easy to dismiss the act of comparison as flawed, and of course I would have to concede that the two sports are very different in many ways. The shape of the ball, the number of players on a team, the basic rules, the scoring system etc. However, put their inherent differences aside and examine the conduct of players, the uses of technology and the overall officiating of each sport and, in each and every one of these categories rugby emerges superior.
Let us begin then with the conduct of players. In football we see players continuously attempting to deceive officials by diving. It has become so rife that the entire football community has come to accept it, whether we choose to admit it or not. We might be outraged when an opposition player does it, but when our team benefits from it, do we lose respect for the guilty player or do we back them? There is no glossing over the fact that the vast majority of professional football matches in the present day are effected by diving players. Every now and again a player gets booked for a dive, but in the grand scheme of things it has no effect on the willingness of players to dive. Quite simply the rewards outweigh the penalties and this is despite the fact that they are supposed to be equally balanced. A genuine and cynical foul is punishable with the award of a free-kick and a caution for the guilty party, and a genuine and cynical dive is punishable in exactly the same way. But, if next weekend the referees in the Premier League booked every player who dived then we would likely end up with record numbers of yellow and red cards. Fans, players, managers and pundits would be outraged and the referees responsible would be lucky to be given the chance to officiate another Premier League game again.