Premier League now worse than Spain, Italy when it comes to sportsmanship
Many years ago, Gianluca Vialli and I spent some nine months criss-crossing Italy and England talking to football managers about the game. Working with Vialli opens a lot of doors and I was hugely privileged to be able to spend time (a lot of time in some cases) with the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and a host of others.
It eventually became a book, "The Italian Job," aimed at comparing and contrasting football culture in Italy and England. One of the themes that emerged was that there was a certain purity to the game in England, a sportsmanship that Italy lacked. Managers shook hands after games and shared a post-match drink. However vicious a game was, it ended at the final whistle and rarely carried over. They did not sneer at their colleagues, they didn't bait them with jibes, they didn't cast aspersions on the integrity of match officials. The media didn't fuel endless controversy over match officials, it wasn't shout-y and nasty, papers didn't dissect referees and whether or not they had given a controversial decision against Team X five years earlier.
It was probably a bit of a rose-tinted view of the Premier League -- after all, Sir Alex Ferguson's "mind games," Kevin Keegan's rant and 2004's Pizzagate all predated the book -- but it was, I thought, a generally fair assessment of the footballing cultures. Serie A was about wrestling heels and conspiracy theorists, England was about gentlemen and sportsmanship.
We compared England to Serie A but for Italy, you could just as easily substitute Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, France or a host of other countries.
And now I reflect on the events of the past month.
We've had "Tunnelgate." We've had Jose Mourinho saying some clubs were favoured by the fixture list because they "have good friends in the right chairs" (read: they have "pull" with the Premier League). We've had Arsene Wenger getting a three-match ban for going into the referees' dressing room, abusing match officials and questioning their integrity -- this happening a year after Wenger was suspended for four games after shoving a match official and calling him a cheat.
We've had Wenger again saying it was a "concerning coincidence" that decisions were going against his club. We've had Antonio Conte joke that Mourinho had "senile dementia" to which Mourinho, taking a page from a 9-year-old's playbook, responded by saying that at least he will "never be banned for match-fixing."
Taken individually, you can explain away and maybe digest all of this. "Tunnelgate" was just a bunch of testosterone-laden young men losing their cool after a heated derby. Mourinho was just pointing out how maybe his club should have lobbied harder. Wenger simply got carried away when he invaded Mike Dean's personal space and maybe when he said it was a "concerning coincidence" that's what he meant -- a coincidence -- nothing sinister.
Maybe Conte simply misspoke when he said "senile dementia," -- which, lest we forget, is a horrible condition that traps our elderly into a perpetual state of confusion and is nothing to be laughed at -- instead of "amnesia." (It would be rather odd if that was the case since he said the word in his native Italian but hey, stuff happens.) And perhaps Mourinho didn't know that Conte had been acquitted for a charge that, incidentally, wasn't match-fixing but failure to report match-fixing instead.
Taken as a whole, though, it's pretty freaking grim and you hope that entertaining as it might be to some, it doesn't escalate further.
"Yeah, well at least I was never on trial for tax evasion, Jose!"
"Oh really? Well, at least this is my real hair, Antonio!"
"Fine, Jose, but at least I never tried to gouge out a fellow coach's eye!"
Whatever the case, it's pretty obvious that the tables have turned. Both La Liga and Serie A, which have had more than their fair share of vicious rivalries, nasty behaviour and conspiracy-mongering in the past, are both rather low-key this year and, in fact, have been for the past few seasons.
Instead, it's the Premier League -- or, at least, some of those clubs in its higher echelons -- that has been marked by these sorts of shenanigans this season. Maybe it's down to the individual managers who set the tone and if these three were working in, say, Sweden, their behaviour would be no different. Or maybe the worm has turned and this is now the status quo.
Either way, if Vialli and I were to write a sequel to "The Italian Job," I suspect we'd need to revise some of our conclusions.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.