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The Art of Cheating

Published 1 month ago 20th February 2023 by Ronan Quirke

In the sometimes breathless analysis of the All Ireland Club Football final, eventual winners,
Kilmacud Crokes were accused of cheating. Well, cheating is a big word and whilst they may have
had 16 players on the field for the final play of the game, there was no evidence that they cheated.
Surely if you are engaged in cheating then it has to be deliberate? Yes, they were in breach of the rules which stipulate that a maximum of 15 players per team can be on the field at any time. And isn’t language a curious thing? There is a difference between saying that a team is in breach of the rules and saying outright that a team broke the rules. An administrative error was the root cause of the rules breach and there was no evidence that Kilmacud had sought to gain any advantage deliberately by having an extra player. But they did have a numerical advantage for the final, pivotal play of the game. Which made the deliberations over sanction so difficult. Yes, rules were broken but not deliberately and the time involved was only 30 seconds. And was that breach sufficient to have the game replayed? Did the potential punishment outstrip the crime?

But if rules are broken and there is no sanction, then what deterrent is there for other teams to try
and gain a competitive advantage by, perhaps bending the rules, or even breaking them. Ah, language again, when does a rule become bent and when is it broken? And if you don’t deliberately break the rule, do you breach it? Take the handpass in hurling once again. The rule is clear on paper, there must be a clear release of the ball and a clear striking action with the hand in order to execute the pass correctly. So if you don’t handpass the sliotar correctly then are you breaking the rules of hurling? The handpass is in ruins at the moment because no team is handpassing correctly and the rules are not being enforced. Yes, a competitive advantage is being won by the new throw ball in hurling but if referees are not willing or able to enforce the rule then why shouldn’t teams see what can be gotten away with.

So if a team is trying to get away with something that may or may not be against the rules, are they
engaging in gamesmanship? Another word that can be added to the lexicon and filed away under cheating, ‘gamesmanship’. Every team is at it, intercounty and club. The throw ball is runing the game of hurling, ruining it as a spectacle and fundamentally changing the way the game is played. An over- reliance on the handpass has crept in to such an extent that those wonderful pieces of ash that players carry are becoming almost redundant. And when that happens you don’t have a game of hurling anymore, you have a hybrid abomination that no-one wants.

Football faced down such a threat to its existence some years ago. When Tyrone beat Kerry in the All-Ireland Final of 2005, you had to wonder what future the game had. Marginal changes were made to the rules over time but essentially the game improved because teams like Dublin and Kerry out did teams like Tyrone and Armagh by being better footballers. Last year’s All Ireland Football Final was a
great game to watch, because both teams kicked the ball and handpassed in equal measure. Last year’s hurling equivalent was poor by comparison with both teams’ over-reliance on an illegal handpass and working the ball through the lines. The rules are being bent, breached and broken and no one is doing anything about it. Teams will always try and ape what works for winning teams. That was what happened in football and most teams now engage in this hurling throw ball to a greater or lesser extent in an attempt to be as successful as others.

Is cheating only defined as cheating if you get caught? Many athletes have knowingly cheated over the years by taking performance enhancing drugs. That is clear, the rules are clear and there is no debate about what constitutes cheating when it comes to doping. Other forms of cheating are less clear. If you look at two examples from rugby to illustrate a point. In 2009, London club Harlequins were playing Leinster in a European quarter final. Harlequins had used up all permitted substitutes and, as it was late in the game, they wanted to get a specialist kicker back onto the field – there was only a point between the teams. In order to get a previously replaced kicker back on, they had to feign a blood injury to a player to allow a temporary ‘blood substitute’ onto the field. But no one was bleeding so a capsule of fake blood was procured and it was made to look as if winger Tom Williams was bleeding from the mouth. He was replaced by out-half Nick Evans. It was all in vain however as Evans missed the drop kick attempt at goal and Leinster won. An investigation ensued and it was found that Harlequins had cheated and suspensions were handed down and reputations were ruined. The club doctor was even sanctioned by the UK’s Medical Council.

A clear case of cheating, undeniably. But in 2019, the champions of English rugby, Saracens were relegated from the top division due to breaches of the rules surrounding salary caps. They were also fined £5.4 million after being found guilty of flouting the rules for over three years. Saracens had been wildly successful during the years when they were found to have broken the rules. The rules were in place in try and ensure a level playing field of sorts in the game. An attempt to even out the financial clout that some teams could wield over others. It was not inadvertent financial mismanagement. It was a deliberate and clandestine circumvention of the rules, over a significant period of time. It was cheating.

But which offence was greater, Harlequins or Saracens? Harlequins garnered more negative publicity and had greater individual reputational damage. The Harlequins coach on the day, Dean Richards, had his reputation ruined by the scandal. I would argue that Saracens’ cheating was worse. It was on a greater scale and was no less deliberate that any doping scandal that might tarnish an individual athlete. And it wasn’t a victimless crime. They had none of their titles removed. Teams lost finals to Saracens whist Saracens were cheating, teams lost championships, and coaches lost their jobs because they had come second to a cheating Saracens team. Covert cheating is every bit as bad and is probably worse that the overt cheating that Harlequins had engaged in.

Which brings us neatly to the recent story surrounding Manchester City. The club has been charged with numerous alleged breaches of financial rules. For those who are somewhat indifferent to the ups and downs of English football, a quick explainer. Manchester City had been in the shadow of their more successful neighbours Manchester United for most of their history. In 2008 the club was bought by the Abu Dhabi Group which proceeded to plough eye watering amounts of money into the club. Unlike other rich clubs in Europe, they are not owned by a wealthy individual or oligarch.

Manchester City is owned by a country, and a fabulously wealthy country at that.
Success came rapidly for the former footballing bridesmaid. The club has won the English Premiership six times, six league cups, two FA cups and have qualified for the lucrative Champions League every year since 2011. They are now charged with breaking financial fair play rules around 100 times over a ten year period, which starts in 2009 and goes up to 2018. In this period they won the Premiership three times. But before you take up a position on this, you have to wonder what purpose financial fair play rules are supposed to do. They cannot ever hope to level a playing field that has become so heavily weighted in favour of a handful of wealthy clubs. And not just English clubs. Paris St. Germain are also owned by a country, in this case Qatar. In 2017, the French club bought Brazilian striker Neymar from Barcelona for €222 million. The following year they bought Killian Mbappé from Monaco for €180 million. No other club could possibly compete with them when it comes to splashing cash. Recently, Newcastle United have been bought by another cash rich nation, namely Saudi Arabia.

So are financial fair play rules in place to give the impression that there has to be some checks and balances in how clubs are run? Or are the rules there to have a purpose and not merely be an act of tokenism? Whatever the reasons for them, the rules are in place and if found guilty, Manchester City face sanction that could include having their titles stripped from them and having the Premiership roll of honour changed. If you search the web for winners of the Tour de France you will see that between 1999 and 2005 there was no winner. Those Tours took place, and nominally Lance Armstrong won them, for an astonishing 7 years in a row. But he has been stripped of those titles for cheating, in this case doping. In each of those seven tours, a cyclist finished second to Armstrong.

But no second place finisher has been awarded the title after Armstrong’s fall from grace. The
decision not to award the title to any of the second place finishers was because the cycling authorities had good reason to believe that many of the riders who finished behind Armstrong had also been associated with doping offences.

As the clamour to punish Manchester City gains a vocal following, there will likewise be a clamour for some redistribution of titles won during this period, if of course the allegations are first proven.
But some might do well to reflect on the way English football and indeed European football is run.
And can any club come forward with clean hands? And if found guilty and forced to hand back titles, is there any satisfaction to be gained from winning a title in a boardroom for clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool who finished second to Manchester City?

Financial fair play in European football is a lot like the handpass in hurling. We either enforce the
rules for everyone or else throw our collective hats at it and admit that particular horse has bolted.
Cheating has become an artform.

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