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Is integrity not a thing of the past?

23 September 2009

Tributes to Bobby Robson should prompt imitation of his virtues, says Paul Vallely

There was a tart irony to the moving tributes paid in Durham Cathedral to the former England football manager Sir Bobby Robson this week. He was a man of the old school, the eulogists said, using words such as gentlemanly, honourable, loyal, dignified, and diplomatic. “He made you feel good about yourself and good about the game,” said Gary Lineker.

The tributes were in unflattering contrast to the other sporting moments of the week. The Formula 1 authorities ruled on what several commentators described as the one of the worst acts of cheating in sporting history — when Nelson Piquet Jr deliberately crashed his car at the Singapore Grand Prix, in order to bring the safety car on to the track and allow his Renault teammate to win the race.

Yet, despite having described the incident as a rule-breach of “unparalleled severity”, the authorities handed out what many regarded as a punishment of unparalleled leniency. Although the team boss Flavio Briatore was given an unlimited ban for ordering the highly dangerous crash, the French car giant was given only a suspended sentence, for fear it might pull out of the billion-dollar recession-hit sport altogether.

This was not about sport but about money, the world-weary sighed. But no such excuse can be proffered in the once-gentlemanly world of Rugby Union, where the fake-blood capsules deployed by a Harlequins player suggest that cheating can be found even among an élite motivated by glory rather than megabucks.

What is striking is not just the bad behaviour, but the unapologetic acceptance of it. Manchester City this week immediately sprang to the defence of its goal-scorer Craig Bellamy, who took the business of being a striker all too literally when he assaulted an over-enthusiastic fan who invaded the pitch. “He thought the fella might spit in his face or something,” said the team’s assistant boss Mark Bowen, unconvincingly.

But then, in the world of football, rule-breaches are endemic. His teammate Emmanuel Adebayor is already banned, after allegations that he deliberately stamped on an Arsenal player recently. Arsenal’s forward Eduardo Da Silva was recently disciplined for taking a bogus tumble to secure a penalty, though the ban was lifted when his lawyers argued that there was not enough proof that he had cheated. Shirt-tugging in the penalty area by all sides is now so routine that it is hardly ever punished.

It is not, of course, only in sport that standards have slipped, as the MEP Chris Davies said at the Liberal Democrat party conference this week. Politicians who fiddle their expenses are “dirty cheating bastards”, he railed. “I want them exposed. I want them punished. I want them thrown out. They should play no part in public life.”

Yet the way forward, or perhaps we should say backward, is obvious enough, as Ari Vatanen, who wants to be the next president of Formula 1, spelled out. “We need to go back to the basics,” he said. “It’s not rocket science; there are not 36 ways to do it. We must just distinguish in life what is wrong from what is right. At the end of the day, it’s a question of integrity [— that’s what] is missing today.”

It is not that the maestros of sport, or the rest of us, fail to understand this. It was all there in the tributes to Sir Bobby Robson, a masterful man-manager and a fine strategist, who, even under severe stress, always remained a true gentleman.

The question is whether there was anything more to the encomiums than the warm glow of nostalgia, when what is required is a determination to emulate his virtues. “We will never see his like again,” one panegyrist concluded. It sounded not so much a tribute to greatness as an admission of defeat.

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