Football’s becoming a circus, isn’t it? So much so that whenever I see teams being led out by their captains, I expect them to be followed by jugglers, fire-eaters and clowns on stilts. The game’s becoming an absurdity and this latest uproar surrounding Arsenal's Andre Santos's shirt-swapping incident with Manchester United's Robin Van Persie only goes to justify it. There’s no middle ground in our analysis. We either have the “football hipsters” who attempt to intellectualize the game beyond necessity when the reality is far simpler or we have have reactionary tabloid-talk full of the insignificant dramas.
People have stopped discussing football itself, with every game preceded by discussions of handshakes and a post-match summing up consisting of red-faced rants about a player getting a shirt from his mate. Which, as a matter of fact, he would’ve been changing out of during the half-time interval anyway. I couldn’t believe the rage that ensued on Twitter. Respected football writers fumed with incredulity at what they were witnessing, “HOW DARE A PLAYER TAKE THE SHIRT OF HIS EX-TEAMMATE BEFORE THE GAME IS OVER.”, “HE’S DISRESPECTING THE FANS!”, “HOW CAN HE EXPECT TO WIN FOOTBALL MATCHES WHEN HE INDULGES IN SUCH HEINOUS ACTS?”. Jamie Redknapp, with his nutsack-strangling pants looking even more suffocating than usual, looked on in disbelief at what he saw as Santos’s unacceptable behaviour but he couldn't tell us why it was so bad. In fact, I've yet to hear a logical argument why it's disrespectful or unprofessional.
I did away with my usual Twitter practice on Saturday and unfollowed a few people. It’s not that I’m bothered about anyone who disagrees with me, far from it. I’m a huge advocate of people airing their opinions whether I agree with them or not. They’re only words after all. I’d never block anyone who I get into an altercation with but my beef is it’s these very people who bemoan modern football’s ills whilst simultaneously perpetuating them. The reaction to the incident was a great measure of how little football is about the play and more about the trivialities on the periphery.
I follow many Arsenal fans and not one of them mentioned Podolski’s culpability in the first goal and his inability to provide Santos with support. I’m sure Arsene Wenger (Who shockingly laughed with RVP and hugged him before the game) is much more concerned with Jack Wilshire’s lack of discipline or Vermaelens’ sloppy start to both halves than an exchanging of memorabilia. Weren’t they more relevant factors in their defeat? It’s clear the left back didn’t have a great game on Saturday but he was certainly in good company along with most of his teammates and a sensible interpretation of what happened would tell you that it had no bearing whatsoever on the game, the result or Santos’s own performance. It was insignificant. I can’t believe there was so much airtime given to it but I’m not surprised.
whenever I see teams being led out by their captains, I expect them to be followed by jugglers, fire-eaters and clowns on stilts
Look at how the Ryan Bertrand tweet a few weeks back was blown out of proportion. The real story was that the condition keeping him out of the England squad was much worse than just a sore throat yet the focus was on #yourf*****gnuts. As anyone with a sense of perspective will tell you, this wasn’t even a secondary issue as his grammatical faux pas more of a crime than cursing. Looking at the incident again, Santos doesn’t even say a word to Van Persie, who just puts his arm around his shoulder and hands him the shirt. It happens. Players want mementos of special games or a keepsake from playing against your mates. I’m not a shirt-swapper myself, I’ve kept my collecting strips down to those of close friends I’ve played with or against. It’s merely a small gesture of friendship and respect that has no effect on the way you play the game.
I’ve heard people argue it was a signal of submission or an admission of subordination but that;s rubbish. They are equals and whenever you come up against a mate on the pitch, you want to beat them as much, if not more than those players you hate. The last person I’d want to score against me would be a mate because of the embarrassment and oneupmanship that’s involved. Whether he asked for RVP’s shirt or not, because of the atmosphere of 70,000 fans and the pressures that a game against Manchester United brings, his focus will have been solely on the game. I’ve no doubt about that. Arsenal fans will hark back to the rivalry of Viera and Keane or Keown and Van Nistelrooy but these are different times and you just can’t replicate the obvious dislike and competitive attitude they had for one another.
Thinking back, the last time it happened to me was at The Boleyn last season. I know Winston Reid from my time in Denmark and he came over to me as we walked off the pitch. We chatted for five minutes and without any mention of a swapping shirts, he took of his shirt and gave it to me. A small token of friendship. West Ham beat us that day and I was sat on the bench for the whole 90 minutes yet that exchange between us had as much influence on our game as the Santos/RVP one had on theirs. Calm down, take a deep breath and let it go people. Swapping shirts doesn’t matter, it’s how you play football does.
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