Sportsmanship kicked from the beautiful game

Sometimes in sport, a touch can make all the difference. The history-books are gilded with examples of sprawling saves, desperate tap-tackles and faint edges that swung the outcome of a match, even a tournament.

Boxing is one sport that seldom deals in such subtleties. Technical nuance is not unimportant, but quick hands and pretty feints will always be trumped by a sledgehammer left, as Amir Khan discovered on Saturday. And brute force is never less preeminent than when the mouth guards are out.

“This is about two guys who dislike each other beating it out of each other,” declared David Haye in the build-up to his bout with Dereck Chisora. Chisora vowed to “burn” and “destroy” his rival.

No soft touches there then.

This fight was the legacy of an extraordinary brawl in a Munich press conference where Chisora descended from his dais to confront Haye. Haye hit Chisora with a bottle, Haye’s trainer Adam Booth was gashed on the forehead, and Chisora threatened to shoot Haye.

Both fighters had their licences revoked by the British Boxing Board of Control and had to turn to the Luxembourg authorities to sanction the tawdry circus of their mutual enmity.

These are tough times for boxing. No longer can the image of a sport in the doldrums be dismissed as the jaded grumble of stuffy ringside veterans.

The sport’s great 21st century icon, Floyd Mayweather, is currently in prison for domestic abuse. Inept judging is a growing blight, with Manny Pacquiao, boxing’s other marquee name, its latest victim. Tarver, Berto and Peterson, world champions all, recently failed drugs tests. And then there are the antics of Haye, Chisora and their ilk.

But what boxing has not lost is its capacity to confound. After Haye knocked out Chisora in the fifth, the bitter antagonists shared a warm embrace. This was an extraordinarily redemptive moment of human contact for two men who had had to be separated by a steel fence at their weigh-in.

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Their sins were not forgotten, but perhaps absolved, especially when Chisora revealed he would donate £20,000 to Haye’s chosen charity. Sometimes, a touch can make all the difference.

This week, another sporting touch, football’s pre-match handshake, came under scrutiny. In the wake of the deterioration of civilities between John Terry, Anton Ferdinand, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole, it seems we will have to steel ourselves for more tedious ‘will-they-won’t-they’ sagas in the mould of last season’s Suarez-Evra handbaggery.

There will be, provisionally at least, 45,980 pre-match handshakes between Premier League opponents next season. And yet not one will touch us like that single moment of genuinely felt communion between Haye and Chisora, however imperfect the circumstances.

Not one will raise a smile like Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali’s finish-line hug at the Tour de France.

Why? Because pre-match handshakes are not true sportsmanship. They are a meaningless mechanical ritualistic faff, fair-play for the fauxmance era. Like the mascot walk and the exchange of pennants, they belong to an elaborate choreography of sportsmanship devised by the game’s governing bodies.

Handshakes should be left to the end of the match as a free and sincere gesture of respect. They would not be as numerous, but at least they would mean something, and maybe, like Haye and Chisora, football’s opprobrious oiks might just surprise us.