Is professional sport there for the athletes or is it there for the fans? Or is it simply a money making business of which both athletes and fans are secondary?
It would appear that some sports do not know the answer themselves.
At the weekend long-standing Chelsea Captain John Terry was given a guard of honour in the 26th minute of Chelsea’s final game of the season. This would be Terry’s last appearance for the club, but it was still a league match even though Chelsea had already wrapped up the League title, and their opponents Sunderland were already relegated.
The decision to stop a league game and have a guard of honour undermined the legitimacy of the game. Sunderland apparently were in on the whole contrived act, and it was their goalkeeper Jordan Pickford who kicked the ball out to allow for Terry’s send-off in the 26th minute, to coincide with his shirt number. Sunderland boss David Moyes has since admitted that his players were aware of the plan.
The fact is such a thing should never have happened. If the club wanted a guard of honour have it before the game, not during it. If the club wanted the fans to rise as one and celebrate what has been without doubt an outstanding career with one club, albeit at times controversial, then make the substation as normal and allow the player to take the applause of the fans. To stop the game to honour one player sets a horrible precedent and raises the question as to whether one player is bigger than the game.
In fact it has done more than that. Sadly the world we live in today has seen sport tarnished by betting scandals and now the English FA are investigating how many bets were made on the substation happening in the 26th minute. It is unusual for a substitution to be made so early in a game, unless a player is injured, and with many in the know there was a chance that easy money could have been made by betting on such a substitution. The odds were 100-1 on such an event, and already it has been revealed that three punters have won GBP1000 each by placing such a bet.
After the event many went scrambling for the competition rule book to see if Chelsea had contravened any competition rules. It appears that the investigation has nothing to do with this, as there is no suggestion the game itself was fixed or that any cheating at betting was attempted. However Chelsea could still find themselves in hot water as according to FA regulations, arranging in advance “any event within a match or competition” is an offence.
The substitution has, just as John Terry’s career did, divided opinion. Incredibly the Premier League has declared that it did not consider the substitution to have compromised the integrity of the competition. Their reasoning being because Chelsea had already finished top of the table and Sunderland bottom. Yet a part of the normal flow of the game was manipulated, and that should never happen. The flow of a game should never be falsely manipulated for any cause, be it noble or otherwise.
We witnessed a similar event in Australia following the 2006 World Cup when four of the Socceroos from the Golden era all were given one last game in the Green and Gold, in a friendly against Paraguay in Brisbane. All four retiring players Kalac, Lazaridis, Tony Vidmar and Popovic were substituted in the game so that they could receive individual applause from the crowd, but the game was not stopped, and there were no guards of honour.
It is nice to be able to farewell heroes, great servants to the game, but it is crucial that the integrity of the game is never put at risk. Sadly at the weekend Chelsea and Sunderland did that. Yet this is not the first time this has happened, two years ago Chelsea and Sunderland were again involved when Didier Drogba was carried off by his Chelsea team-mates midway through the first half of his final appearance against the same opponents. Chelsea have made a mockery of the game, the Guard of honour was a step too far. No one player is bigger than the game.
Yet when all is said and done it was a fitting farewell for John Terry. He has once again managed to create controversy, he has once again polarised opinion, just as he did throughout his career. Maybe there was only one way for him to leave the game and it was once again creating headlines for all the wrong reasons. Sadly the betting related to his substitution and the stopping of the game to form a guard of honour has taken the attention away from his 717th club appearance and 580th as captain, he has been Chelsea’s leader for 14 years of his 22 years at the club, and has become their most successful captain. His time at the club has seen him win five Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, one UEFA Europa League and one UEFA Champions League title since 2004.
What makes this whole scenario even harder to stomach, if the rumours are true, is that Terry asked for the substitution to happen in the 26th minute, and the club complied. This season’s success was built around a strong team performance not one man. It should have been the whole team celebrating as one what has been an outstanding achievement, no one player should have stolen the limelight.
Finally Sunderland should hang their heads in shame. Their actions show that no longer do players have pride in the shirt that they wear. They may well have been relegated, but they were playing for pride. Their fans would have wanted them to go out in style and what better way than getting a result against the newly crowned Champions? What did their actions say to the fans who travelled from the North East to London?
Plenty of great players have retired from the game and many will in the future, but the understated way that they leave the game confirms their greatness.
Let us hope we never see such a farce on a football pitch again.