Offside, 7 February

Spitting in football: 'the worst of all things'?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

What’s the worst thing a footballer can do? Kung-fu kick a spectator? Throw a coin at the crowd? Assault a referee? All unacceptable, sure, but spitting in an opponent’s face? Now that is really disgusting.

Holland’s Frank Rijkaard irreparably tarnished his reputation as a model professional the moment he flobbed on Rudi Voller’s mullet in the 1990 World Cup. Middlesborough’s Gianluca Festa has now joined football’s Hall of Shame after gobbing in the face of Sunderland’s Kevin Phillips on 29 January 2002. Boro manager Steve McClaren fined Festa two weeks’ wages, saying ‘You cannot defend the indefensible’. Although Festa himself acknowledged that ‘spitting is one of the worst offences you can commit on a football field’, he protested rather feebly that ‘I did not spit at him but some blood did come out of my mouth as I remonstrated with him’ (as if spitting blood makes it more acceptable!).

In October 1999 Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira spat in the face of West Ham’s Neil Ruddock and was given a six-match ban. ‘I think the coppers should have grappled him and knocked his f*cking head off’, fumed the portly defender. ‘What he did was scum. He’s scum. A nasty man. It’s the worst of all things. The lowest of the low. A disgrace’ (okay, okay, I think we get the point, Neil).

Agreed, spitting is pretty disgusting, but is it really ‘the worst of all things’, or indeed ‘the last taboo’ (as one national newspaper described Vieira’s act)? I would have thought that incest, necrophilia, and shit eating are probably higher up the taboo league table, but I guess such things are unlikely to occur at football matches (though I wouldn’t rule it out in Wales).

It is funny how hard men like ‘Razor’ Ruddock get so outraged about copping a face-full of saliva but think nothing of crippling their opponents (ask Andy Cole who had both legs broken by a Ruddock tackle). Witness, too, Australian defender Kevin Muscat, another notoriously dirty player, who accused France’s Robert Pires of spitting at him during an international game in November 2001. ‘I wouldn’t let it happen to me on the street, let alone during a match’, said Muscat, whose X-rated tackle in the same game put Christophe Dugarry out of action for three months.

It is tempting to conclude that spitting is yet another nasty foreign import, like diving, feigning injury, or wearing gloves in cold weather. Eric Cantona may have started the trend by spitting at a Leeds fan in 1993. Last season, Fulham’s Portuguese striker Luis Boa Morte and Coventry’s Moroccan international Moustapha Hadji were both dismissed for spitting at opponents. This season, Aberdeen’s Hicham Zerouali, another Moroccan, and Airdrie’s Antonio Calderon, a Spaniard, have both been accused of spitting at opponents.

But while foreign players are certainly culpable, there are home-grown phlegm-flingers, too. In July 2000, Celtic’s Chris Sutton, who is as British as roast beef, was found guilty of spitting in a man’s face after an altercation in central London. In October 2000, Cambridge striker Steve Slade was banned for spitting in a match against Bournemouth.

The taboo against spitting is not just confined to Britain, but is pretty much global. Paraguay keeper Jose Luis Chilavert was banned for four matches for spitting at Brazil’s Roberto Carlos in August 2001, while Galatasaray’s Gheorghe Hagi was given a six-match ban by the Turkish football federation in March 2001 for spitting at a referee. According to Torino captain Antonino Asta, Italian players tolerate all manner of threats and insults, but ‘two things are considered below the belt: spitting, and taking the mickey when you’re winning’ (1).

When Derby’s Danny Higginbottom, the target of Moustapha Hadji’s spittle, said ‘I would rather take a two-footed tackle than have that done to me’, he perfectly summed up the traditional if rather crude moral code that operates within British football.

It may not conform to the New Labour etiquette that is now being imposed on players, but it shows that British footballers, contrary to popular wisdom, have not lost their moral bearings. Gob on someone and you’re asking for a kicking.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Italian etiquette brings Baggio no relief, Guardian, November 14 2001

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Topics Politics


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