When Samuel Sáiz spat at the Newport County midfielder Robbie Willmott he revived the forgotten scourge of football. After a few years away gobbing is back, effortlessly renewing its position as the No1 most offensive act in football. The only question about the seriousness of this act being; is it really?
Newport had taken an injury-time lead in Sunday’s FA Cup tie with Leeds United when Willmott began strutting around, his shirt taut in front of him as if he was about to catch a falling kitten from a house fire. Sáiz, he claimed, had left a trail of expectorate on his jersey. The referee, Mike Dean, was informed, Sáiz was sent off and, on Monday, the Spaniard was given a six-game ban by the FA.
Sáiz was highly penitent after his punishment was announced, proclaiming: “I give my word to all those connected to Leeds United that I will learn from this and never repeat it.” If that sounds a tad over the top (have you ever heard someone say similar about diving, never mind a reckless challenge?)it fits with the perceived seriousness of the crime.
Six games is the mandatory suspension for anyone found to have spat at someone during a match. The Newcastle striker Papiss Cissé was banned for seven games in 2015 after a special independent commission investigating an altercation with Manchester United’s Jonny Evans took prior violent conduct into consideration when handing out his sentence.
The FA’s tariff had been revised upwards in the summer of 2014 in order to fall in line with Fifa’s position on the matter but there is no doubt everyone in the game reviles spitting. Whenever the various bodies in the English professional game gather to discuss matters of regulation, it’s consistently agreed to be beyond the pale. Violent conduct, it is felt, is an unavoidable consequence of a contact sport, spitting on someone not so much.
Why does spitting get under so many people’s skin? There is no doubt it is an uncouth act. When directed at someone else it carries a degree of psychological insult, the victim apparently considered unworthy of being treated respectfully by their assailant. A flob might also transmit infection. When the Health Protection Agency advised footballers to stop spitting altogether in 2009, there was no disguising its feelings when it labelled the act “disgusting at all times”.
It does seem odd, though, that spitting should be so vilified when other, not entirely dissimilar, activities are barely even noticed. Foul language, for example, is surely more wounding of a victim and is very much seen by impressionable young fans watching on television (at least it is when players are not cleverly obscuring their mouths with their hands). Offensive language or gestures carry a mandatory ban of two matches.
At three matches violent conduct is punished with a ban half as harsh as that for spitting. If complaints are made about a specific incident violent conduct can be investigated and that ban extended. The only qualifier there is that it very rarely is. Mousa Dembélé earned a spit-sized ban of six matches for violent conduct in 2016 but it was a rarity. It was also at least in part down to the difficulty of arguing it was accidental when film shows a clear attempt to gouge out Diego Costa’s eyes.
When it comes to spitting, no one would ever sincerely argue in its defence. But its position as a disciplinary outlier in football does look a bit odd. Each weekend seems to bring an act of petty nastiness equally worthy of a month-and-a-half time out. Spitting has apparently acquired a symbolic importance; it’s the crime squared directly against football’s original, Corinthian, largely imagined values.
In the interests of being seen to treat other matters with the seriousness they deserve, perhaps the game should get over it. It appears Newport’s Willmott has. “There is absolutely no hard feelings from me,” the midfielder said after putting his shirt in the wash. “Sáiz is actually one of my favourite players in the Championship.”
The Guardian Sport