26 October ~ When Ottmar Hitzfeld was the coach of Borussia Dortmund back in the 1990s, he admitted that defeat would prompt him to sink into a two-day depression. It's hardly surprising when you consider that being a manager (to use the British term) is the most demoralising job in football. You stand on the sideline, impotent to influence events other than through gestures and calls. And when your team loses, you end up taking most of the blame.
From a personal point of view, I've been suffering Hitzfeld-style as a coach this autumn, but that's not the only reason I've become depressed about the game. Scotland unwittingly satirised the whole concept of tactics by playing a nihilistic 4-6-0 formation in the Czech Republic. Lincoln City have scored seven goals in 13 games, the lowest strike rate of any team in the top five English divisions (and probably quite a few elsewhere). The same old order is establishing itself at the top of the English and Scottish Premier Leagues. There's been the tedious tale of Rooney and his wife, agent and prostitutes, and the willingness of the media to play along, second by second. FIFA officials are still fond of brown paper bags. Neo-Nazi fans are still rampant in Italy and eastern Europe. And to bring it back to me, I pulled a hamstring while trying to outrun players 20 years my junior. Why do I coach? Why do I still try to play? Why do I still bother to watch or pay attention at all?
One respite from the hardships of being a failed coach, player and fan has come from taking up refereeing. This affords you the chance to be genuinely neutral, while staying fit, calm, uninvolved, and even getting paid into the bargain. Yet this past weekend, even the relief of not having to care about the result, or my physical and mental health, was taken away during the kind of Saturday afternoon that makes you want to renounce the game for good.
Team A came to play good football. Team B came with a game plan – to hoof the ball up to their one decent player, who was a fast, physical and extremely skilful striker. When Team B took a 2-1 lead thanks to two breakaway goals, they brought the striker into the back line to defend the lead and hoof it up to no one instead (Craig Levein would have applauded). It wasn't pretty, but it was effective, and no doubt some would call it smart given the team's limited resources.
None of this was really a problem, except that the team was coached by a man who screamed at them for the entire game. There were no actual coaching instructions, just ceaseless "motivational" yelling. The team had been trained to foul, from start to finish, but only niggling fouls for pushing and shoving – enough to justify yellow cards, but nothing serious enough to draw a red. Towards the end they wasted time like the savviest pros, and when they finally won there were celebrations like it was Spain in July.
This was a team of Under-14 boys playing in a Washington DC area Catholic schools recreational league. As football competitions go, you can't get much further down the hierarchy. And yet at half-time, the raging coach had screamed into the face of a boy who could not have been older than 12: "Do you want to win this fucking game or not?" The kid looked terrified. But hey, the results don't lie. That apoplectic coach must be a great leader, and at least he didn't threaten the boy with the eternal fires of hell. Never mind that his team will struggle to develop either as players or human beings.
When you see gamesmanship and the worst habits of professional sport seep down to the lowliest leagues of youth football (and this is by no means an isolated example), you begin to despair that the game is rotten to its core and beyond redemption. Like Jesus shifting money-lenders and tradesmen from the temple of Jerusalem, you want to step up as the almighty healer and angrily cleanse the game of barking, "win-at-all-costs" psychopaths. But if the players and their parents tolerate this approach, there's nothing you can do. You're just one man with a whistle, in charge of one game in a million. And it's not like I'm any better. This season I picked up my first ever red card as a player, for using foul and abusive language to a (hopelessly incompetent) referee. Another sign that it's time to retire.
Of course football, like life, has always been about the good, the bad and the ugly. Nowadays, though, even the good are tainted. Lionel Messi will happily score with his hand. England's leading internationals lead lives seemingly detached from any obligation to a moral code. Amateur youth games are deemed important enough to instigate a policy of tactical fouling. Middle-aged men swear at refs. And you can add to the bad and the ugly the corrupt, the cheating, the greedy, the boorishly obsessive, and the all-dancing media with its relentless, inescapable coverage.
What have we done to our game when it's no longer a diversion, but a constantly intrusive source of bad news that gets us just as down as the "real" headlines? My general disillusion is enduring longer than Hitzfeld's couple of days, unlike previous phases. The only way out seems to be to stop caring at all. If I only could. Ian Plenderleith