While everyone seems to focus on the dark side of football a lot of the time – diving, handballs, imaginary cards being waved at the referee, and so forth – not as much emphasis is placed on fair play. Realistically, the majority of games are played in a pretty clean fashion even if there are a few hard tackles, but I guess fair play just doesn’t sell as well as dirty play.
With that said, in football history, there have been some acts of fair play and sportsmanship that stood out so much that they did get the same publicity as a terrible challenge. Here are five of the best.
#5 Di Canio catches the ball
Paulo Di Canio didn’t exactly have a spotless reputation on – or off – the pitch. In England he’s perhaps remembered better for shoving referee Paul Alcock to the ground while playing for Sheffield Wednesday than he is for his insane scissor kick goal for West Ham, and he also courted controversy by flashing Nazi salutes while playing for Lazio and by smashing up his office at Swindon Town after being fired as their manager.
In 2000 though, he showed himself to be a truly sporting player during a match for West Ham against Everton. The game was in injury time when Everton keeper Paul Gerrard went down injured after a clash with a West Ham player. As the ball spilt towards the touchline, Trevor Sinclair collected it and sent a cross over towards Di Canio – who promptly caught the ball rather than firing it into the net, and then pointed at the downed Gerrard.
For such a display of sporting behaviour, Di Canio was greeted with a standing ovation from the Everton fans as well as their players. The game ended 0-0 and although the Italian’s decision cost his team two points, I don’t think anyone minded. Di Canio’s reputation was forever restored (for a while at least!) as he was awarded a FIFA Fair Play award for his selfless actions.
#4 Oliver Kahn and Lothar Matthaus show their human side
It’s a well-known fact that nobody beats Germany in a penalty shoot-out – in major tournaments they’ve won five of seven shoot-outs and their players have scored 28 of their 33 penalties. So realistically nobody could blame the players of Die Mannschaft for gloating against their usually crestfallen opponents.
Thankfully though, even the most ruthless German players clearly have a heart. This was on display in West Germany’s infamous 1990 shoot-out win against England in the semi-finals of the World Cup. After Stuart Pearce missed an earlier penalty, it fell on the shoulders of Chris Waddle to score and keep his team in the game.
Waddle fired the ball way over the bar and England were out, but Germany’s Lothar Matthaus – arguably the finest midfielder in the world at the time – didn’t celebrate, instead, he headed over to the fallen Waddle to console him and help him to his feet.
While it wasn’t for the German national team, legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn then repeated Matthaus’ actions when Bayern Munich defeated Valencia on penalties to win the Champions League in 2001. After saving the key penalty from Mauricio Pellegrino, rather than celebrate, Kahn headed over to console his opposite #1, Santiago Canizares, who had collapsed in tears, a broken man.
It’s one thing to be a gallant loser, but a gallant winner is even more impressive.
#3 Miroslav Klose admits his handball
Speaking of German legends, we come to Miroslav Klose. The World Cup’s all-time record scorer also holds the record number of goals for Germany, and being a prolific goalscorer, he was able to find the net in plenty of different ways. Left foot, right foot, with his head, from close range or long range, it didn’t matter for Klose. Unless he used his hand, that is.
In a game for Lazio against Napoli in September 2012, Klose gave his side the lead in the fourth minute from a corner. Immediately Napoli’s players began to protest and a subsequent replay – unknown to the referee of course – revealed that Klose had used his hand to push the ball into the net.
Unlike Diego Maradona, though, Klose did not claim divine intervention. Instead, he immediately admitted his transgression to the referee, who subsequently struck off the goal – and then shook the German’s hand and spared him a yellow card. Klose was then mobbed by the Napoli players, who thanked him for his honesty too.
While Lazio went on to lose the game 3-0, Klose’s actions earned him a Sports Ethics Award from the University of Rome Tor Vergata – an accomplishment up there with all the goals he scored cleanly in his career.
#2 Aaron Hunt comes clean
In March 2014, Werder Bremen were leading Nuremberg by two goals to nil with around fifteen minutes of the game left to play. As Nuremberg pressed forward, Bremen broke away with a counter attack and a cross from the left found midfielder Aaron Hunt in the box, but before he could shoot, he was brought down by Javier Pinola.
The referee blew his whistle and awarded Bremen a penalty...that is, until Hunt got to his feet and immediately approached the official, explaining to him that he’d actually dived. The replay would confirm this and upon Hunt’s confession, the official struck off the penalty, causing Pinola to chase Hunt down to shake his hand for showing such sportsmanship.
Hunt went on to tell Sky, “I was looking for that contact and I wanted a penalty. That was pure instinct, but it was wrong. I had to think about it, but we don’t want to win a match like that.” Bremen indeed held on to their lead to win 2-0, but the win was made more memorable thanks to Hunt’s sportsmanship.
#1 Morten Wieghorst’s misses a penalty on purpose
We end with somewhat of an odd incident from an international match in 2003 between Denmark and Iran. As the game approached half-time, an Iranian player heard a whistle from the crowd that he misinterpreted as coming from the referee and figured the half was over. And so he made the error of picking the ball up inside his own penalty area – with his hands – before booting it towards the halfway line.
The referee naturally had no choice but to point to the spot and award the Danes a penalty. But after a quick chat with his coach Morten Olsen, midfielder Morten Wieghorst decided against looking to score, instead side-footing the penalty wide to the right of the goal, essentially giving it up entirely. The Iranian players were amazed and applauded Wieghorst, while their fans gave him a standing ovation – assumingly not by using whistles.
Wieghorst’s team went on to lose the game 1-0 but in a cool consolation prize, he was given an Olympic Committee fair play award for his courageous and sportsmanlike actions in the bizarre incident.