SO football used to be Men Behaving Badly but now, apparently, it’s as gentrified as Downton Abbey.
Well, that’s what boffins in Austria have told us with research at the University of Salzburg claiming footballers, coaches and managers are now far more polite due to the absence of fans.
They reckon the lack of supporters due to Covid restrictions has led to fewer altercations on the pitch and less emotional behaviour.
The research, centred around Austrian outfit FC Red Bull Salzburg, claims there have been nearly 20 per cent fewer emotional situations in ‘ghost games’ — those without fans.
The eggheads said there were fewer fouls, less abuse of refs and less verbal jousting between opposing players — all because supporters have been side-lined since the pandemic kicked in last year.
Ex-players raised on pitches that resembled ploughed fields and with referees who turned a blind eye to anything other than multiple homicides, often say the game has gone soft, but this Austrian research seems to be taking the Wiener Schnitzel.
All this is fascinating as clubs continue to play behind closed doors due to the continued threat of infection.
The research also concluded that there was significantly less ‘angry verbal interaction’ which, to you and me without a doctorate in psychology, means swearing at each other. And the referee, of course, who invariably gets it in the neck.
Again, not so sure about that.
Aston Villa boss Dean Smith did a pretty good impersonation of an angry man after his side conceded a controversial goal at Manchester City recently.
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Smith was rightly peeved at the concept of City’s Rodri standing in a different time zone, then scuttling back from an offside position to rob centre-back Tyrone Mings of the ball, before Bernardo Silva scored.
Smith’s reaction was not what the Austrian nerds had in mind as he swore like a trooper, then got his marching orders.
Certainly, there was no love lost this week in the Milan derby as Romelu Lukaku told his former team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic “F*** you and your wife”.
Mind you, Ibrahimovic had advised the Belgian to “Go do your voodoo sh**”, so it’s fair to say they won’t be sending each other Christmas cards.
Football and foul language has, rightly or wrongly — OK, wrongly — been part and parcel of the game since Old Etonians were knocking lumps out of Corinthians in the 19th century.
So, has the lack of fans taken the edge off the game? Are players now cooler than a cucumber in Siberia? Would Roy Keane no longer be frothing at the mouth like a rabies victim?
I think the research may be right in part as playing up to the crowd surely happens in football, just as it does on stage in the West End. But having fans in grounds is everything, as they are the lifeblood of the game.
The atmosphere is cranked up and players, naturally, respond to that.
OK, so players could be behaving better, but the day when fans are allowed back into our stadiums will be a joyous one. No more piped-in crowd sounds and more red-blooded action.
If the game is going soft then Keane will climb over the TV commentary gantry and take a lump out of your legs. Footballers. You have been warned.