Something weird and fascinating has happened this week. A national debate about morality, gentlemanly conduct, responsibility and forgiveness has broken out in the most unlikely context — the football pitch.
And this time it’s the football establishment, and not the media, who are taking the moral high ground.
“The players have to be an example in their own private lives at every moment,” said England manager Fabio Capello on Monday. “They have to stay careful and sacrifice something in their lives. These are young boys ... but rich boys. This is the problem.”
This was only a few days after Capello explained that he had taken the England captaincy away from John Terry after his alleged (do we still have to say that?) affair with the mother of fellow player Wayne Bridge’s son because “What he did was not good. I told him that and he understood”.
Do I detect a genuine turning of the tide here? For so many years now football has been a microcosm of the very worst excesses of modern capitalism — an arena in which greed and the degradation of women in the hunt for instant sexual gratification has often been laughed off by fans, overlooked by managers and cheered on by team-mates.
Listening to football phone-ins over the years I have despaired at the prevalence of the ‘So long as he’s putting them away on the pitch, who cares what he puts away in the nightclub/hotel/offshore account?’ argument among fans and even journalists.
From wife-beating alcoholic Gazza to the rampant Cashley Cole, talent on the field made these men gods of their universe.
So when I heard John Terry’s Chelsea boss Carlo Ancellotti say that the ‘fantastic’ Terry would ‘never lose the trust’ of his team-mates and would stay captain of Chelsea back in January I was ready for more of the same old same old.
But Capello’s morally-based demotion of Terry changed everything.
As well as making Ancellotti look small and stupid, it also dared to raise the notion that footballers, rather than be handed the eternally tolerant world on a plate, should be forced to behave better than other young men and make sacrifices for their privileged position.
He also suggested that the combination of riches and youth made for a potentially explosive combination which necessitated strict discipline from a firm hand such as his.
He did not, as some high profile managers have been wont to do, defend or feign ignorance of his players’ repugnant behaviour in public. He said clearly and simply, that what Terry had done “wasn’t good”.
Did Capello’s quick decision, strong words and unashamed belief in right and wrong give Wayne Bridge the courage to refuse John Terry that old fashioned gentleman’s symbol of friendship, the handshake, last week?
Steven Gerrard certainly seemed to gain a few inches when he stood up straight to declare on Wednesday: “We understand what the manager wants from us. We listen and take note. [The manager] reiterated that we have responsibilities as players both on and off the pitch. We are in the spotlight but we've got to behave.”
Some of the England fans jeered Terry on Wednesday night. I’m not a fan of ganging up and verbally abusing anyone, but if football fans are getting upset at players for disorderly conduct against their friends and family, rather than a betrayal or failure on the pitch, that’s a curious change of mood.
I’ll watch the World Cup with interest.