The headline in the Sunday Times sports section yesterday was “Doucoure robs Southampton”. The Watford midfield player had just scored a last-minute equalising goal in a two-all draw to ensure that Southampton’s run of ten games without a win continued. Nothing particularly special about that, I guess, except for the fact that Doucoure scored the goal with his hand rather than his head. The pictures all over the newspapers are conclusive and you can watch the goal in slow motion on television. The write-up in the newspapers was interesting. To his great credit, the Southampton manager refused to blame the referee. He said that his job is difficult and it was not easy to see. The Watford manager said that all teams get good decisions and bad decisions and you must take the rough with the smooth; a familiar refrain. There was instead much more discussion around possible installation of a video assistant referee system being rolled out in the Premier League as quickly as possible in order to help the referees decide whether there has been a foul in the run-up to a goal.
Personally, I find it extremely sad that we have fallen so low in our standards that the action of the player himself was not even questioned. There is absolutely no doubt at all that Doucoure knew he had handled the ball into the goal. He would have felt it on his hand; and he even turned to look at the assistant referee quickly before he celebrated his goal. Why do people not therefore have the moral courage to castigate the player for not admitting he handled it, rather than to try to find other ways to help the referee? Why was the player not questioned for even claiming the goal in the first place? Surely he would have known that all television and photographic angles would capture him cheating. Would you have admitted it if you had been playing a match at school? And is there a difference between the two?
Well, the reason that you would have admitted it without even thinking, and that it did not even cross the mind of Doucoure to admit, is money. A lot of it.
The average player in the Premier League now earns £50,000. That is, £50,000 a week, twice in a single week the average annual salary in the UK. It does not take much to work out that the average player therefore receives over £2.5 million in salary each year. The managers are broadly in the same boat; the top two managers in the Premier League earn about £15 million per year each, though most of their opponents earn somewhere between two and four million. There is therefore a lot of money riding on whether these people keep or lose their jobs and I can only assume that the Watford players, like all players at that level, have been told that results are everything and it does not matter how you achieve them.
The cost of relegation to a football club is enormous. Clubs in the Premier League now receive almost £100 million each from television rights, where clubs in the next league down receive under a tenth of that. Players will be paid a lot less therefore in the Championship (though our hearts can scarcely bleed for them), but also lots of backroom staff at a club will lose their jobs if the team is relegated. Through no fault of their own, stackers of shelves in the club shop, accounts clerks in the accounts department, marketing assistants in the marketing department, will all lose their jobs because the team has lost matches. Results matter hugely to the businessmen who run these clubs, too, because ultimately not only will they earn or lose money accordingly, but people on lower salaries will keep or lose their livelihoods. Lastly, their fans, who often pay hundreds of pounds for season tickets for themselves and their families, despite (in many cases) being scarcely able to afford them, want to see their side play against Manchester United, not Brentford.
There is a lot of money, livelihoods and happiness riding on the result and one can understand therefore the on-field pressures; but there is also quite a good chance that Southampton will be relegated this year by a point or two and that the Doucoure handled goal will be decisive. “Doucoure robs Southampton” therefore might just actually happen.
The problem with all this is that these footballers, people fully in the public eye, set an appalling example. I often say at the start of the year that with privilege comes responsibility; it seems to me that footballers forget that rather too often. My real question is not about football however but about life more broadly. To what ends will you go for money? Football is so unconcerned about blatant cheating now that it does not even bother questioning the player who does it. Yet, you are also likely to be asked questions in life which test your strength of morality and ethics and it may be particularly hard to answer those questions comfortably where money is involved. Did Doucoure have an alternative? It would undoubtedly have taken extraordinary moral courage in this day and age for him to have admitted his mistake, but it somehow feels like a lost opportunity. Wouldn’t it have been marvellous if he had turned to the referee and said “Ref, that was no goal”. I wonder what reaction he would have got.