If Christmas can sometimes run the risk of sending our moral-compass awry, then we can always rely on football and the sales to set us straight again. A single day of crass mawkish sentiment, which combines sickening quantities of over-indulgence with nauseating levels of self-delusion, can, if taken too seriously, endanger the proper functioning of a citizen of the 21st Century, and this has to be put right. You can't really run the risk of letting people sally forth into the new year, full of inappropriate Christmas bonhomie and let them get trampled underfoot by the murderous reality. So the tradition needs a reset button and this consists of Boxing Day football for the blokes, or a scrum at the sales for the gals. Both, even.
Villa's trip to Stamford Bridge was a fine example of the tradition and although it might have left me feeling slightly more nauseous than a breakfast of lard sandwiches, after a heavy night on the ale, as a demonstration of football's and life's realities, it is unlikely to be surpassed. It showed exactly what is required to get something from a game you are about to lose - world-class cheating, Villa-class passion and a referee, who thinks he's the main event.
Ballack provided the world-class cheating - he was superb. It was the sort of cheating which can win you a World Cup, or in Ballack's case, a runners-up medal. He dived with all the precision and acumen of a Stuka pilot strafing a Polish Kindergarten, and somehow he had the Teutonic genius to realise that he was never going to score and a sending-off was a far better aspiration. World-class - nothing less - and the Villa players might spend as much time admiring that, as they do examining any defensive frailties Martin O'Neill might want to remind them of. Other attempts by the Shev were less successful, but Joe Cole, showing his true pedigree, went down quicker than a pescetarian smelling dinner in a brothel, and provided another exemplary sporting atrocity to admire. It is a sad indication of Shevchenko's loss of form, that even his cheating is not up to the standard, which the huge fee seemed to promise.
Football's fantastic like that. It tells you everything you need to know about the modern world - the absolute need to cheat - and the total lack of moral agency, or personal responsibility, expected of those who do the cheating. Not only are there no consequences for those who cheat but those who comment on the cynical hornswaggling, do their best to cover it up - usually by the subtle adjustment of the language. Cheating is described as clever in football and thus, cheating is transmuted into something both fine and praiseworthy. They confuse us by expressing what sounds like approval in a disapproving tone of voice. Why can't they be more honest. Is it good or is it bad? I find the moral ambiguity too daunting to unravel and the pundits should say what they mean, so we can all understand and decide whether the same values might be usefully transferred to ordinary life.
Surely, to everyone who knows anything about football and life, it is clear that cheating is as much a part of the game as the body-swerve or the sliding-tackle. It seems impossible to imagine that it is not as systematically coached, as the off-side law or the defending of set-pieces. So why isn't it celebrated? Didn't someone boast that United's first European success, had as much to do with them nobbling a Benfica player (studs on his instep), as Best's goals? Shouldn't there be proper accolades? Surely Marco Materazzi should have got some kind of award for getting Zidane sent-off in the World Cup final? Surely for every game there should be a cheat-of-the-match award. Certainly, such is the tradition of cheating between England and Argentina, the two nations could easily exchange a janus-faced trophy after every encounter - Maradona's 'hand of god' and Owen's famous penalty-winning dive in 2002, are both remembered fondly.
Why are such brilliant cheats like Alan Shearer so mealy-mouthed about their vaulting accomplishments, in the field? You know the stuff - when to shove and when not to - that sort of thing. Surely, if English football is to emerge once again onto the world stage, it needs the youngsters to bring their cheating skills up to world-class levels. We can't leave it all down to the new Italian guy. Didn't Wenger say, only the other week, that if a kid doesn't know how to cheat by the time he is ten or eleven, it is probably too late. Are our finest cheats to deny our children their rightful heritage? Even the BBC are falling down on the job, as after Ballack demonstrated one of the finest examples of how to ram an elbow into someone's face (Gareth Barry) they failed to include it in the Match Of The Day edit. How are our children to learn from such master-classes, if the BBC filter them out? Obviously, it didn't quite achieve its aim of removing yet another Villa player from the game, and so it cannot be given top marks, but surely the fact that he got away with it, deserved the appreciative expert appraisal of the pundits.
We deserve better.
Even though Joe Cole's dive was good enough to earn Chelsea a free-kick, which they scored from, I really didn't think it was up there with the best and it obviously must be considered a work that is still very much in progress. It really had too much of the Charlie Drake and Norman Wisdom about it, to be considered worthy of any marks for artistic-merit but I suppose you could say that about the whole of his game. I think it is reasonable to make the claim that when it comes to the quality of their cheating, Stamford Bridge far surpasses even Old Trafford as the Oxbridge of diving, and it really is remarkable what they have achieved with Drogba, whose cheating went from the comically obvious, to virtually undetectable in the course of a single season - that was some achievement. Obviously Man United don't need to reach such high standards, as they operate under an entirely different set of criteria, as regards what constitutes a foul (actual breathing is not recommended when marking a United player), but the fact that Ronaldo got booked for diving, not so long ago, suggests that it is something they have neglected recently.
Between evenly matched opponents, the difference between winning and losing, depends on who is the best cheat.
Nice guys always come second, or so the sex-manuals tell us.
But if the game against Chelsea was unsurpassed for drama, which left me feeling a bit sick, there was a singular moment which stuck in my mind. No, it was not Barry's cool penalty, which earned the draw. And it wasn't Laursen's world-class display at centre-back, crowned with a goal. It wasn't even Ashley Cole's obvious quality. It was Gabby's fantastic cross onto Carew's head for Maloney's opening goal. I was amazed by that - totally amazed and totally impressed, because it was not only a cross Liam Brady might have been proud of, it was off Gabby's left foot. A few more like that and they'll start accusing him of being two-footed. I just keep asking myself - how good is it possible for the lad to get?
Now, if he doesn't get to play for England - I will feel cheated.