James Lawton: If in this of all weeks we are obsessed by a handshake, the game really is up
In the course of frantic discussions yesterday between officials of the world's richest football league, two of its managers and one player, who despite a talent that might be charitably described as mediocre is paid considerably more than a brilliant brain surgeon, you could easily have been dragged into a massive misapprehension.
It was that anyone of right mind, and with a reasonably adult set of emotions, could give anything approaching a damn whether Anton Ferdinand of Queen's Park Rangers and John Terry of Chelsea this afternoon perform the traditional pre-match courtesy of shaking hands.
One of the managers, Ferdinand's boss Mark Hughes, has long been on the record with his view that the Premier League's insistence on the ritual should be abandoned as nothing so much as an invitation to the most stomach-turning hypocrisy.
Hughes' argument gathered force earlier this year when Ferdinand, whose accusation of racism against Terry resulted in a not guilty verdict in a London courtroom in July, made it clear that he would rather be immersed in a vat of burning oil than press the flesh with the former captain of England.
The QPR manager made an arresting case. You cannot, he implied, institutionalise respect in a competition where the urge to gain any cheap advantage over your opponent has become commonplace, where diving and the waving of imaginary red cards in the faces of officials is utterly routine. How much better, he said, to finish the game with a handshake that might just mean something.
Yesterday Hughes said that the club would follow Premier League instructions while making it clear that he couldn't speak for Ferdinand. The orders were delivered promptly at 3pm yesterday. The handshaking would continue as "part of the pre-match activity".
Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo said that his club was going to respect the rules and protocol of the league and set a positive standard to the millions of watching fans across the world.
It is at this point, surely, when you have to take a large intake of breath and wonder whatever happened to the spirit of a game that 42 years ago produced one of the most uplifting images in the history of football. It was created by possibly the best player of all time, Pele, and another captain of England, Bobby Moore. They embraced and exchanged jerseys at the end of a match of beautiful balance and unforgettable strength and skill.
It happened in Guadalajara, Mexico, and today – from the perspective of Shepherd's Bush – it might be a speck in the solar system. No one disputes Ferdinand's right to support the serious charge of racism against Terry, one that later this month will be reinvestigated by the Football Association without the burden of proof required by a court of the land. It is also right that he is the sole judge of who he considers worthy of a shake of his hand. What is troubling, though, is the absolute disregard that so many players appear to have for the standing of their profession and any ability it has to convey anything than the most grinding self-interest.
When Ferdinand's case against Terry was heard there was no attempt to disguise the levels of malevolence which preceded the incident in which his opponent was alleged to have uttered racist abuse. Ferdinand taunted Terry with references to his alleged affair with the former partner of Wayne Bridge, a controversy which significantly damaged England's preparations for the 2010 World Cup.
Terry said such provocation was routine. He heard all that match by match, including crowd chanting concerning the sexual proclivities of his mother. What was so shocking was not this formal confirmation of the mores of professional footballers as they went about their work – any reasonably alert observer of the game would have known as much – but the sense that it had long been accepted that this was how it was and likely to remain.
By sticking to its pre-match routine, the Premier League must know that it is exposing itself to a repeat of the nightmare which came at Old Trafford a few months ago when Luis Suarez avoided the outstretched hand of Patrice Evra, who had successfully charged him with racism. That was the trigger for still another surge of the tribal hatred which has long disfigured matches between Manchester United and Liverpool.
The Liverpool fans chanted "Munich scum". United's fans responded with jeering references to Heysel and Hillsborough. There it was, once again, the huge fault line of English football, the failure to embrace the game as a potential light in so many lives.
Yesterday Chelsea and QPR were warning their fans against extreme behaviour, they were appealing for a mood of restraint and, perhaps, even decency, and as they did so you couldn't help but retrace a week in which the tragedy of Hillsborough had again spilt beyond the boundaries of football and gone into every corner of national life.
Truth, and decency, had, after 23 years, been finally brought to the tragedy which had so needlessly claimed 96 innocent lives.
The relatives who had fought so hard for the good name of their lost ones at last heard the word sorry – and on the lips of the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box of the House of Commons. It was an apology that will now be fiercely conditioned by the vigour with which the Attorney General pursues the authors of a terrible conspiracy to shift the blame from where it properly belonged, but for the moment at least there is the sweet sound of atonement in the air.
Even the Football Association was required to make an apology for its catastrophically negligent decisions over the staging of the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield. But then how long will we wait for a little more accountability from the wider game?
How long will it be before the superstars drive from their mansions into the real world, one in which they seem ever more detached from the feelings and the priorities of ordinary people?
Yesterday's furore over the quandary of whether to shake a hand or apply another measure of bitterness to the atmosphere of the national game seemed especially petty at the end of the week of Hillsborough, one in which so much old and apparently unbreakable anger had finally been recognised with unexpected honesty and regret.
A little wildly, perhaps, you might have thought that here was a moment to put aside the worst of football's past. You might have been tempted to believe that, just like the eruption of the spirit of the Olympics, the promise of the righting of some desperate wrongs could give football another invitation to consider how it might reimpose some of its best values.
There were some moments of encouragement. Former Anfield striker Robbie Fowler said that it was time for the fans of Liverpool and United to put away their obscene chants. Sir Alex Ferguson – so often a divisive, inflammatory figure –announced to both sets of supporters: "We are two great clubs. We should understand each other's problems. Maybe a line will be drawn in terms of their behaviour towards each other."
But that was before we had the summit over the challenge of getting one player to shake hands with another and the decision that the ritual would go on. But to where, a place where anyone might truly care? It isn't so easy to believe.