In Good Conscience

In football rules, spying isn't an offence; getting caught is

Have you been following the so-called "Spygate" affair in English football?

If not, maybe you should read no further. It might spoil any notion about fair play and football.

However, I rather imagine that you are acquainted with Derby County's claim that Leeds United stole an unfair advantage by sending someone to spy on their training session before last weekend's league match.

Derby manager Frank Lampard and the media wasted NO opportunity to spin this out as an act of dastardly cheating.

It served as an excuse for the 2-0 defeat Derby received at Elland Road where, for the second time this season, Leeds outplayed and outclassed them.

The performance left nothing in doubt. Leeds' wisp of a winger Jack Clarke, just 18, was irresistible. He is gifted, supremely balanced, a creative spirit from the academy of the club leading the race for promotion to the English Premier League.

The difference between the EPL and the euphemistically called "Championship" (Division 2 in old terms) is reckoned to be £130 million (S$228 million).

And Lampard, steeped in a pro football family and from a long way back storing knowledge on how to manage the game, would have us believe that he was so focused on propriety that he is shocked to hear of the dubious arts?

So, yes, a manager worth his salt would seek any edge.

Leeds and Derby are desperate to regain the rivalry, the power, they had when Don Revie managed Leeds with ruthless gamesmanship, and great play. His rival, Brian Clough, managed Derby with unique persuasive charisma.

Both clubs overshot their ambitions, and their means to pay, and almost went bankrupt. Now, as they strive to recapture old glories, Derby bank on Lampard becoming as good a manager as he was a player. And Leeds have gone to Argentina to hire a man who, though he speaks little English, is a byword in world coaching.

He, Marcelo Bielsa, is reckoned by Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino to be a grandmaster in their profession. When Bielsa coached Athletic Bilbao against Barcelona in the Spanish King's Cup final, Bielsa sent Guardiola his technical analysis of Barca.

Guardiola messaged back: "You know more about Barcelona than me!"

Knowledge didn't count for much, as Bielsa remembers it. "They were generous with us," he recalls now. "They stopped playing after scoring three goals."

Another interpretation is that talent trumps tactics, no matter how artful the manager.

Lampard's insinuation that Bielsa cheated led to the headline "Spygate" (borrowed from the US National Football League after the Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick was fined US$500,000 (S$678,000) in 2007 for videotaping the Jets' defensive coach signals).

Like Pinocchio's nose, the story grew and grew until Bielsa picked his own way to pick it. I do this against all rivals, he said. We watched all their training sessions before we played against them.

In Argentina, this is normal. Yet Lampard, and former players and managers who make a living as pundits, do come across as sanctimonious Britons pointing fingers at foreigners.

The Football Association has opened an investigation. Bielsa pre-empts that by admitting he has spies everywhere. "I did it because it was not illegal or violating specific laws."

Critics call for Leeds to be penalised enough to jeopardise promotion. Bielsa responds by calling a press conference, and giving the media a 70-minute PowerPoint presentation showing dossiers compiled by 20 staff and amassing hours of data on every game of every opponent in the league.

Espionage contributed little or nothing to what they already knew, even if Derby claim the young man peeping on their preparation through binoculars also had wire cutters.

Why do it?

"Because we feel guilty if we don't work enough," Bielsa said. The obsession with details "helps prevent us from getting over-anxious. We think that by gathering information, we get closer to a win. In my case, it's because I'm stupid enough to allow this kind of (anxious) behaviour".

Bielsa is driven, definitely not stupid. He studied agronomy and physical education after failing to make the grade as a player at Lionel Messi's first club, Newell's Old Boys.

But Lampard claims that he never knew that while he was winning trophies at Chelsea, his manager Jose Mourinho routinely dispatched his assistant Andre Villas-Boas to, ahem, spy on opponents' training.

And Lampard, steeped in a pro football family and from a long way back storing knowledge on how to manage the game, would have us believe that he was so focused on propriety that he is shocked to hear of the dubious arts?

Before the last World Cup, Sweden's coach confessed (when caught) that he sent an aide to spy on South Korea's training sessions. Last month, Werder Bremen admitted they used a drone to watch their German Bundesliga rivals Hoffenheim training.

All terribly un-British, no doubt. Not at all the Corinthian code. But the way the rules are formed, spying is not the offence. Getting caught in the act, apparently is.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2019, with the headline 'In football rules, spying isn't an offence; getting caught is'. Print Edition | Subscribe