5 greatest acts of sportsmanship in football history

Paolo Di Canio: An angel and devil rolled into one?
Paolo Di Canio: An angel and devil rolled into one?

There is a lot of room for gamesmanship in football at the highest levels; sportsmanship, not so much. It is expected that the athletes who put their lives on the line to bring glory to their teams would straddle the thin line between white and black with no misgivings.

The annals of the game are replete with stories of gamesmanship and desperation to win at all costs. From Cristiano Ronaldo's infamous wink after getting Wayne Rooney sent off, to Eden Hazard shockingly kicking out at a ball boy in a desperation to get the game restarted, it is often the win-at-all-costs mantra that overpowers everything else.

Displays of ethics and sportsmanship are rare in a game where even a crucial goal in a World Cup final (1966) still remains hotly debated. One of the most talked about goals in the history of the game was actually scored using a hand (Diego Maradona vs England, 1986 World Cup).

Thus, when players and officials do transcend the immediate to show commendable sportsman spirit at the highest stage, it is the game that is enriched. In this article, we take a look at five such incidents that have attained folkloric status in the game.

Five greatest acts of sportsmanship in football history:

#5 Oliver Kahn - 2001 Champions League final

Oliver Kahn.
Oliver Kahn. Jan Vertonghen Robbie Fowler

Before we move on to the more traditional aspects of sportsmanship brought out by the game, we begin with an example of the expression of the idea behind it. It was the 2001 Champions League final. Oliver Kahn had just become a hero for his side, Bayern Munich, having lorded over a tense penalty shootout to take his team to the title.

However, instead of celebrating with his raucous teammates as is the norm, the towering keeper rushed to console his vanquished Valencia counterpart Santiago Canizares in an act that earned the German a FIFA Fair Play award.

Kahn was possibly the best keeper in the world at that point in time and went on to have an amazing FIFA World Cup in 2002 where Germany finished runners up.


#4 Ajax - Cambuur 2005-06

Jan Vertonghen

Yes, we feature an entire team in this segment. That's because, after Jan Vertongen, then a fresh-faced youngster, scored an accidental goal, the whole team played their part in the act that followed.

The Belgian wanted to give the ball back to the opposition goalkeeper after a restart. However, he kicked it a bit too hard and ended up scored an accidental wonder goal from yards out.

Ajax didn't want that kind of glory though and, in an act of great sportsmanship, allowed their opponents Cambuur to score a goal unimpeded. It was a rare sight on the football field at any level.

#T3 Robbie Fowler

Robbie Fowler

In 1997, Robbie Fowler, then Liverpool's star man, went down under a challenge from David Seaman, the Arsenal keeper, at HIghbury. While the referee blew for a penalty, Fowler stunned everyone by vehemently protesting the decision himself, saying he was not touched by his England teammate. His weak penalty was also saved by Seaman but the rebound was subsequently converted.

Nonetheless, such an exhibition of honesty in a title race is unprecedented in the cut-throat mores of the game, and Fowler went on to receive a FIFA commendation for the same.


#T3: Miroslav Klose

Miroslav Klose.
Miroslav Klose.

Miroslav Klose is jointly ranked with Fowler in this list because his act, in 2012, being no less remarkable.

In a game where goals scored with the hand have left a lasting impact (refer Maradona above, also Thierry Henry vs Ireland in a World Cup qualifier), Klose actually admitted to scoring a goal with his hand for Napoli in a game his team went on to lose 3-0 to Lazio.

Klose was given a Fair Play award by the German Football Association for his gesture.

#2 Arsene Wenger (Arsenal), 1999

Arsene Wenger.
Arsene Wenger.

Arsene Wenger is one of the greatest managers the English game has ever seen. Under him, Arsenal achieved the elusive 'Invincibles' tag and won all major laurels English football had to offer. But the professor was also a gentleman par excellence despite some ungodly spats over the years that are inexorable in the demanding echelons of the top level.

An act of sportsmanship particularly epitomises the values Wenger stood for. Nwanko Kanu had misread the situation from a regulation restart where the ball was supposed to be returned to rivals Sheffield United in an FA Cup match. Marc Overmars netted from Kanu's pass, resulting in chaos and consternation. It was when Wenger did the unthinkable by rejecting the wing and offering Sheffield a replay which the FA accepted.

The Blades, managed by Steve Bruce, went down 2-1 to Arsenal in the replay where Overmars found the net again. But it was the French coach's extraordinary gesture that transcended the context.

#1 Paolo Di Canio, 2000

Di Canio in action for West Ham in 2000.
Di Canio in action for West Ham in 2000.

Paolo Di Canio is one of the most enigmatic characters to have played the beautiful game. The mercurial Italian will not only be remembered for the brilliant goals he scored during his playing career. He would also be remembered for his other, more interesting, exploits on the field that included pushing a referee to the ground after being sent off.

But the incident we are talking about earned Di Canio a FIFA Fair Play Award and is possibly the most celebrated incident of sportsmanship in the game in contemporary times. This is because it came from the emotional, hot-headed forward not expected to offer such an unusual gesture.

Against Everton in a Premier League game in 2000, Di Canio, playing for the London club West Ham, stunned everyone at Goodison Park. After the Toffees goalkeeper Paul Gerrard had fallen to the ground from an injury, the ball reached Di Canio with a gaping net in front of him. However, to everyone's surprise and subsequent applause, Di Canio caught the ball and asked for immediate medical attention for Gerrard.


Special mentions:

#1. Leicester vs Nottingham (2007)- A FA Cup replay that both teams agreed to after a Leicester player fell sick at half-time, saw even more amazing fair play when the Leicester players allowed Forrest to score first to restore the result of the abandoned first match.

#2. Amin Motevaselzadeh (2010)- Much like Di Canio, the Iranian footballer refused to score in a crucial league encounter between his side Moghamvemat and Steel Azin with the opposition keeper down.

#3 Costin Lazar (2009) and Vittorio Esposito (2012)- Both players refused to benefit from a wrongly-awarded penalty. The former, playing for Rapid Beucharest, made the referee overturn his own decision, while the latter, representing US Tremoli, deliberately missed a penalty gifted to his team.

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