Saturday 22 August ~
It is not difficult to be cynical about football. Already this season has thrown up enough reasons to switch off. Michael Ballack's calculated foul on Patrice Evra and the resulting shambles in the Community Shield, Ashley Cole's new £25 million contract to play left-back for Chelsea and Andrew Johnson's dislocated shoulder all point to football's ugly culture of violence, unchecked ambition and greed. Add to this list the predictability of the elite competitions, the inevitable diving and ref-baiting that will trickle in as the season progresses, and it becomes tempting to agree with those who compare football adversely to other sports.
Rugby union has always presented itself as football's better-off cousin, played by a different class of sportsman who operate under a different moral code. Anyone who has been to a self-aggrandising school can testify to the old maxim about how gentlemen and ruffians play sports that fit their type. If there was ever some truth to this pompous proverb it has vanished now – as the sport has professionalised, rugby union has descended down the same ugly path that has left football in its current state. The corrupt cover-up of Tom Williams's fake blood, Schalk Burger's eye gouging against the British and Irish Lions, and the failure to punish the spear-tackling of Brian O'Driscoll against the All Blacks illustrate how comfortably rugby sits with its poorer cousin.
The world of athletics does not fare much better. Even as Usain Bolt stood catching his breath after demolishing the 200m world record he had defend the legitimacy of his achievements. Worse still, the result of the ladies 800m final at the World Championships is pending a gender verification test on the winner, Caster Semenya.
Despite its faults, English football looks in glorious health when placed in the context of the wider world of sport. The gap between the top and bottom was shattered this week as the three teams promoted to the Premier League all won. Manchester United were humbled by Burnley to the riotous noise of a crowd who had not experienced top-tier football for 33 years.
United are not the only top team suffering from the league's new-found egalitarianism – the top four all look weaker this season. Liverpool have lost Xabi Alonso; Arsenal have surrendered £40m worth of players to Manchester City; and Chelsea, while all-aboard, are another year older. While the upper echelons are shaking, Manchester City, Spurs and Aston Villa can all have pretensions to break up the cosy cartel. So, as the second weekend of the Premier League calendar rolls around, perhaps a little excitement is in order to ease the suffering of the jaded football fan. Footballers might not call the referee "sir" but at least they don't hide their gamesmanship in their neatly ironed socks.