Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku grabbed the headlines on Wednesday when he comforted Benfica’s goalkeeper following the 18-year-old’s unfortunate goal-conceding howler.
Coming out to collect Marcus Rashford’s in-swinging free kick, goalkeeper Mile Svilar stepped back behind his goal line with the ball, thus gifting United a match-winning goal in the second half of the Champions League contest.
Following the match, the downtrodden young goalkeeper was consoled by fellow Belgium international and United striker Lukaku, a moment that many fans applauded for what was a great display of sportsmanship.
As the gesture made headlines within football and sporting circles, it needs to be asked whether the game has become so starved of sportsmanship that a brief moment between compatriots on opposing sides should get the volume of attention it has.
Yes, what Lukaku and a number of other United players did is to be applauded. Good sportsmanship should always be praised.
Given the tsunami of social media reaction, however, does this point to a problem with the game?
Romelu Lukaku sets example for all footballers with this unbelievable and amazing gesture to Benfica goalkeeper.. https://t.co/bg6kerPicu
— GeniusFootball (@GeniusFootball) October 19, 2017
Lovely moment between Lukaku and Mile Slivar after the game last night. Terrific sportsmanship ????pic.twitter.com/H2azkJ4eqS
— EiF (@EiFsoccer) October 19, 2017
Shouldn’t this kind of sportsmanship be the norm in football, in all sports? As professionals with the same aspirations, ambitions and fears they have a common understanding that should make such gestures all the easier, despite their natural competitiveness.
Why is it, therefore, the rougher, more physical sports that seem to feature such sporting gestures with far more regularity?
Across the various combative codes of boxing, MMA, kickboxing and more, opponents go to war with violent intent. Yet, when a contest is decided, mutual respect is almost always shown, despite them beating lumps out of each other only moments before.
Similarly, in rugby, the physicality of the game often sees players being helped up off the turf by an opponent following a heavy tackle.
At the end of a contest opponents routinely embrace and extol easy praise on their former foe, often punctuating their comments with similar offerings on social media.
In football, praise or kind gestures towards someone in another jersey seems almost to be a show of weakness. A curt handshake is often the most that can be expected.
Sportsmanship has become replaced with gamesmanship. Feigning injury and playing the victim of a foul, these are antics that are now almost defended as a routine and accepted part of the game.
Yes, measures have finally been introduced to help combat such unsightly goings-on, but after years of theatrical shenanigans, the good of the game, the sportsmanship, the camaraderie, has been eroded away to the point where a positive player interaction is treated like a moment almost warranting a Nobel Peace Prize.
Perhaps this just is the nature of the modern game, where an ‘at all costs’ mentality has been propagated by ever-increasing revenue streams for the most successful.
Perhaps the beautiful game should not be compared to the more ‘brutish’ sports of rugby, boxing or MMA, where a show of respect for an opponent is less exception than it is the norm.
Of course, there are moments in all sports that sit opposed to these aforementioned generalisations. However, on a whole, one could well be forgiven for wondering why football seems to lack the empathy shown so freely by these other sports.
Maybe it’s a grassroots thing or maybe the clamour for success has replaced the necessity for mutual respect.
At the end of the day, however, Lukaku’s gesture was a tonic for football. That it is applauded is a good thing. While it is unlikely to spark an empathetic revolution in football’s professional ranks, perhaps it does sew a seed in the next generation of aspiring football stars.
Time will tell.