A month into the new season and already we can see why soccer engages people the year round. The Olympic Games, which have made England feel so good about itself, may be a nice, wholesome and positively inspiring form of sports. But for gritty soap opera, the Premier League simply can’t be matched.
At the end of a profoundly solemn week in which an independent inquiry gave Liverpool supporters bereaved by the Hillsborough stadium tragedy the justice they have sought since 1989 – when even the government saw fit to issue an apology – moral issues abounded. There were even some anti-Liverpool chants at Old Trafford, fortunately from a small minority of fans to whom Sir Alex Ferguson had vainly appealed for good taste in advance of the intense rivals’ meeting at Anfield next Sunday.
But even this was overshadowed by on-the-field drama as United beat Wigan Athletic 4-0 to stay nicely tucked in behind the early leaders, Chelsea. With Wayne Rooney injured, the unlikely villain was Danny Welbeck, whom Wigan’s respected coach Roberto Martinez said should have been sent off for a rash tackle on Franco di Santo. Martinez also noted Welbeck’s apparent dive in earning a penalty kick early in the game.
Until last week, Welbeck was a stranger to controversy. At 21-years-old, the striker returned to Old Trafford last season after a successful loan spell at Sunderland and looked so good – notably in partnership with Rooney – that England coach Roy Hodgson had no hesitation in taking him to Euro 2012, where he scored a brilliant backheel winner against Sweden and generally underlined his progress.
You didn’t have to be an England or Manchester United fan to derive pleasure from this. Welbeck seemed the kind of player a soccer mom might want her daughter to bring home; young, gifted, unselfish in nature and with a smile on his face. Until last week, when fingers started to point at his reluctance to stay upright in the penalty area when challenged during England’s 1-1 tie with Ukraine. On this occasion the referee’s call was on the side of the angels: he waved play on. But four days later Premier League official Michael Oliver judged Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi had made contact and pointed to the spot.
Many onlookers felt justice was done when Al-Habsi promptly saved Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez’s kick. So the early goal that might have eased United’s path never materialized and indeed Wigan gave as good as they got for nearly half the match. But Martinez still felt the decision "set the tone" for an all-too-familiar sort of afternoon in front of the customary 76,000 at Old Trafford.
"I have come to United three times before today," said the popular Spaniard. "For whatever reason, we don’t seem to be measured in the same way as the team at home. Today the penalty was as bad a decision as you are going to see in the Premier League."
The question of whether referees give United and other "big" teams more than they should is an old and thorny one and it also arose at Stoke, where the home side were grateful that neither referee Mark Clattenburg nor his assistants discerned foul play in the handling offence – or offences according to Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini, who scornfully referred to "basketball” – committed by Peter Crouch before he scored Stoke’s goal in a 1-1 tie. Stoke coach Tony Pulis, when told afterwards that the video evidence showed Crouch gave himself at least one helping hand, retorted "Good!" Then Pulis added that it was a welcome change for his team to get the rub of the green when facing one of the League’s giants.
But here’s another moral poser: when is the Hand of God not the Hand of God? The original instance, involving Diego Maradona when he craftily fisted a goal against England in the 1986, seemed clear and the English have deemed Maradona almost a byword for cheating ever since. They also joined the Irish in howls of outrage when Thierry Henry pushed the ball across for William Gallas to claim the goal that sent France rather than Ireland to the 2010 World Cup. But in the case of Crouch, there was discussion only of the decision and not of the scorer’s ethics.
The difference? Would it be cynical to suggest that his nationality came into it? Perish the thought. But England does still like to think of itself as a lingering bastion of fair play. Let’s leave it there and, while we’re at it, also assume that Welbeck’s twin stumbles were caused by water on the field rather than any intent to deceive.