In today's times, re Spygate:
Moral panic over Leeds United ‘spying’ is absurd
by matthew syed
I can understand why Marcelo Bielsa appears to be more than a little bemused. He sent a colleague to watch the training of upcoming opponents on Thursday — in my view, a rather sensible thing to do — and he has found himself in the middle of one of the great moral panics of the season.
The Leeds United head coach has been accused of “cheating”, of “chicanery” and of “bringing the game into disrepute”. Jermaine Jenas, the former Tottenham Hotspur and England midfielder, said: “I’m disgusted . . . It’s obviously common in Argentina and I’d rather it stayed there.” Frank Lampard, the manager whose Derby County side were the subjects of the “spying” and lost 2-0 to Leeds on Friday night, said: “This one is over the line and it’s not just a toe over the line. It’s a hop, skip and a jump over the line.”
Perhaps the most pithy perspective, and the one most in keeping with the general tone, was offered by Martin Keown. The former Arsenal captain looked outraged when he said that Bielsa had, wait for it, “broken the moral code”.
Young Leeds fans bring some much-needed levity to the situation during Leeds’s victory over DerbySIMON COOPER/PA
Isn’t that a wonderful phrase, “The moral code”? It is a very English expression, bringing with it the idea that morality is not only about rules, but a deeper sensitivity to form and etiquette. A code is, by definition, about the translation of covert information. The point, one imagines, is that Bielsa may not have broken any laws or rules but he violated something much deeper: the unwritten principle of British fair play.
It is this sentiment, I suspect, that underpins Bielsa’s bemusement. For what is this unwritten code that he has so egregiously transgressed? How can the poor Argentinian bring himself up to speed with its covert meaning, its underlying imperatives? He has probably watched English football hoping to gain a few clues. But what sits within this code and what doesn’t?
Diving? Well, that seems to be pretty well integrated into the English game; indeed, many regular observers think that English clubs now deploy this tactic with greater scope and sophistication than any comparable league. Surrounding the referee after decisions? The English game doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this, either, a point that Keown could himself expound upon.
Pulling the shirt of an attacker breaking free on goal? We are in the midst of an epidemic of this kind of rule-breaking right now, a point made superbly by Matt Dickinson in The Times last week. Tax avoidance and transfer window chicanery? It would take a PhD thesis to fully expose what English clubs get up to, yet few of the pundits and former players seem terribly bothered.
Bielsa has been a breath of fresh air and has Leeds playing with verve and beliefANTHONY DEVLIN/PA
Bielsa may also notice that when it comes to broader moral issues, like greedily accepting the flow of money from foreign individuals of — how shall we put this? — questionable repute, the English game has become extremely adept. I am not sure the last time I heard a single TV pundit offer an opinion, solemn faced or otherwise, about any of this. Is this also within the “moral code”?
Or perhaps Bielsa has come to the conclusion — and I wouldn’t blame him — that the term “moral code” is English football’s answer to the Bermuda Triangle: a set of ethical instructions that seem entirely real to the person asserting them but which seem to shimmer and shift, and then disappear altogether, whenever you try to find them, or define them, or pin them down in any way. The moral code, one may almost say, is the cryptographical equivalent of hypocrisy.
Leaving this to one side, however, can we at least agree that, stripped of the jealousy and intrigue, Bielsa has been a breath of fresh air in English football? Few could dispute that Leeds are playing with verve and belief, leading the Championship by four points. And this transformation has taken place, it is worth emphasising, without a significant change in personnel, constructed instead upon a deep understanding of tactics and a marvellously idiosyncratic willingness to exploit tiny advantages.
Players are reportedly weighed every morning to discover lean mass, fat mass and bone mass. The length of the grass at the training ground is measured regularly. The intensity of the training sessions, and the meticulousness of the video analysis, often individualised for each player, is becoming the stuff of legend. Bielsa has his own bed at the training ground and a personal kitchen; clearly a man who regards coaching as not only a profession but as a vocation.
Perhaps my favourite story of the season so far was Leeds’s trip to Norwich City in August, where they found that the away dressing room had been painted “deep pink”. The Norwich coaching staff had apparently learnt that pink has the effect of lowering testosterone and hoped to blunt the ambition of Leeds. Bielsa, for his part, offered some cryptic comments on the concept of desire — “Men can’t say that women are not a source of stimulation” — and then led his team to a 3-0 victory. Best of all, he then insisted that his own players clean the dressing room until it was spotless. “He wants to change this mentality — that we are [now] clean,” Ezgjan Alioski, the Leeds winger, said.
But let us finish with what has inevitably become known as “Spygate”. I can sympathise with the view that the English game may, at some point, wish to change the rules to specifically prohibit teams from watching each other’s training sessions.
We learn from the Bundesliga that a drone was sent by Werder Bremen to observe a Hoffenheim training session last December. I am guessing few people would wish to see an escalating arms race of surveillance and counter-surveillance technologies in the English professional divisions.
For the time being, however, I can’t help shrugging my shoulders at an attempt to legally gain intelligence upon opponents, sending a colleague to a public space to take notes. And I rather admire Bielsa’s honesty for fronting up when questioned.
If it turns out that fences were smashed, or computers hacked, that would obviously change things. In the meantime, the real mystery — to me, anyway — is why the Derbyshire constabulary felt it was an appropriate use of police time to send officers to the “scene”.
Don’t the police, and indeed English football, have more serious issues to address?