If you had to make a list of what defines cheating in football, most people would list similar things. Diving, play-acting and (God forbid) waving an imaginary yellow card (though quite why this action is any worse than simply asking for one has never been properly explained). But at a recent UEFA coaches convention in Nyon, one subject of conversation amongst Europe’s elite managers raised tempers, a seemingly innocuous (some would say tedious) topic that nonetheless is increasingly becoming important, particularly at the top level of the game, the subject of grass length.
Over the years, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have become fierce enemies. Once friends (Mourinho was a translator and then coach at Barcelona whilst Guardiola was still a player in the 90s), the pair are now barely on speaking terms and make conscious efforts to avoid each other after years of battling on the sidelines, firstly with Inter and Barca, then Madrid and Barca, before last years Super Cup meeting between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. It was at this year's conference in Nyon that the topic of grass length came upon, and according to witnesses in the room, it was this that caused Mourinho and Guardiola to clash again. The Catalan Guardiola complained that the maximum length of grass should be 1.5cm, half of what the current limit is set at, whilst Mourinho argued it should be left as it is. To a fan, this difference is hardly noticeable, but to a player, the difference is clear the second they step onto the field. During the many Madrid-Barca clashes during the Jose-Pep era, the Portuguese left the grass at the Bernabeu to grow to try and nullify Barca’s famous tiki-taka passing game, whilst Barca seemingly complain every week that the opposition has left the grass to grow too long. Is this trying to take advantage against superior opponents, or simply cheating and attempting to win unfairly? Perhaps this is a question for the moralists.
Back in Nyon, the conversation became heated. Guardiola explained “The grass should be a minimum of 1.5cm and watered before the game. This would make games much faster and more beautiful for players but also the paying fans”. Most in the room agreed with the Bayern coach, a man who arguably produced the greatest side in the history of football when his Barca side swept all before them during four glorious seasons between 2008 and 2012. There was one vocal dissenter however. Sat to the right of Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho took the microphone, announcing “Everyone has his style, which should be respected. Football can be beautiful in several ways” to which Guardiola retorted “The beauty of football depends on the coach, it seems for Mourinho the result is more important than the spectacle, I know that’s all that matters to him”. The disagreement highlighted the differences between two of football’s best coaches. One, hiding behind a mountain of trophies, the master of pragmatism. The other, never satisfied, always searching for perfection in his players. One is the master of defensive football, happy to sit back and wait before striking when the opponent believes he is on top. The other always wants to play spectacular football, and is sometimes unhappy when his side wins without playing beautiful football he always insists on. I’ll leave it to you to guess which coach is which.
Of course, there have been plenty of examples in the past of managers trying to use the pitch to their advantage. John Beck, once manager of Cambridge United, used to water the corners of his Abbey Stadium pitch to ensure the ball didn’t run out when his team hit another trademark long ball. Beck is now ironically working for the FA, in charge of developing youngsters at the new St.George’s Park facility in Burton. Brian Clough wasn’t adverse to a bit of gamesmanship, often watering the pitch to turn it into a bog, particularly if Don Revie’s Leeds were in town (though once he famously fell asleep and forgot to turn the fireman's hose off, almost leading to a postponement). Quite where you stand on this issue really depends on your priorities. If, like Mourinho, you believe in winning at all costs, even if it involves ‘parking the bus’ and nicking a 1-0, then leaving the current maximum of 3cm will suit you just fine. But if you’re more like Guardiola, who enjoys a fast, precise game of football (even accepting a 3-2 defeat so long as you’ve been entertained) then shortening the maximum length will suit your interests. With UEFA due to vote on the issue for the start of next season, all eyes will be on who has come out on top of the latest Jose-Pep battle.