OPINION: The Ben Sigmund incident once again demonstrates that the first casualty of team in professional sport is morality. Mark Reason has had a gutsful.
Ben Sigmund's two-footed stamp on a UAE striker he had just hacked to the ground was a disgraceful act of thuggery. But at least Sigmund attacked just one man. The passive reaction of this country's football management and administrators in the immediate aftermath of the "tackle" is far more shaming. It is an abdication of responsibility that leaves our soccer-loving kids in a moral vacuum, gasping for air.
Sigmund at least could attempt to plea bargain "heat of the moment" and apologised sincerely when he got home. There is no such pusillanimous wriggle room for our administrators. They have had plenty of time to think about what Sigmund did, condemn his action and suspend him unilaterally.
Instead, these men of "responsibility" chose to say almost nothing, hiding behind the notion of "team". I have had a gutsful of it. Manager Ricki Herbert said at the time that Sigmund had apologised to the team. Is that the United Arab Emirates team that Herbert would be talking about, the victims of the attack?
Er, no, Herbert is talking about Sigmund's own team, the All Whites, who are now in danger of getting an undeserved reputation and having the ‘W' in Whites replaced by a more faecal letter.
Herbert said, "Yes, he has apologised (to his own team) but that could be in the fray of an away fixture in Mexico (possible World Cup playoff opponents for the All Whites) and you're facing a massive uphill battle to get something from the game. I think it's just frustration."
My wife occasionally gets frustrated at me - hard to believe, I know - but as of yet, she has not swept my legs from under me and then brought the heels of her shoes crashing down on both knees. And there has been considerably more provocation than Sigmund ever received the other evening.
But this all goes back to the wretched sanctity of the team. Professional coaches love to say there is no "I" in team. It is all supposed to be about a glorious suppression of the ego for the common good - and it is all utter balls. Teams are collectively selfish. Teams represent the coach's ego. National teams represent the country's ego.
Manchester United are collectively selfish. The All Blacks are collectively selfish. England's cricketers are collectively selfish. That is why the wagons are circled whenever there is an incident. The commercial brand has to be protected, the self-interest of the team has to be protected. The first casualty of team in professional sport is morality.
Of course Herbert didn't see the Sigmund incident. It was on the other side of the pitch. He was waiting to see a replay. When Arsene Wenger is at the gates of heaven and St Peter asks: "Have you any sins to confess?" the Arsenal manager will reply, "No comment, I was unsighted, I'm waiting to see a replay of my life." We heard the same thing from All Blacks coach Steve Hansen after Andrew Hore's punch last year. The mute Hansen was waiting to see a replay. And when coaches do see a replay, they pray it can be interpreted to suit the selfish needs of their own team. When Umaga and Mealamu spear tackled Brian O'Driscoll, Graham Henry said "it was just one of those things" and repeatedly claimed Umaga had apologised when he had not.
The sanctity of team must be protected. It is ironic that O'Driscoll has just been excoriated for a rather charming and honest interview about his disappointment over being dropped from the final Lions test this year. OMG, he defiled the sanctity of team. O'Driscoll was supposed to lie or evade or do all the things we tell our kids not to, rather than be honest about how he, and nearly every sportsman, feels when he is dropped.
Fred de Jong, New Zealand Football high-performance manager, said of Sigmund, "It wasn't a great foul. It was a silly foul. The game was winding down at that point. To then get yourself sent off in those circumstances was not good." Sigmund's crime was to commit a "silly" foul that might have hurt the team. There's nothing about the opposition player or the brutality of the act. De Jong uses a "move on" word that you tend to aim more at young children. All Whites manager Brian Turner said after the game that Sigmund was not available for comment. Why on earth not? Going back to our kids, one of the first things you want them to do is take instant responsibility, and to own up there and then for their actions, not after they have been pressured into it. Sigmund's apology was better late than never, but it should never have taken so long.
When Ernie Merrick, Sigmund's new coach at the Phoenix, was asked about the incident, he said it would be inappropriate to comment while Sigmund was on All Whites duty. Why? Might it affect Merrick's relationship with a Phoenix "asset". Might it hurt the team?
I hope Merrick is a bit more forthcoming when he comes over the hill to talk to some of the Wairarapa's juniors later this week.
I hope he is prepared to condemn violence on the pitch. I hope someone among this country's administrators is finally prepared to say the right thing.
- Sunday Star Times
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