This weekend, the two kinds of football played on opposite shores of the Atlantic for once have a shared fascination — handshakes.
Which is stunning, really, because how hard can this be? Extend hand, clasp opponent’s hand, squeeze gently, let go. This is a form of greeting that toddlers manage. It has been performed for centuries, yet in sports it can confound and confuse.
This hang-up over handshakes is mostly a masculine affliction. Poor guys. It must be their man juices. Testosterone. Male pride. Call it what you will. That and thin skins can make them as volatile as gasoline and make the handshake their emotional Everest.
Too hard, too soft, not respectful enough, too respectful and — boom!
But what a laugh. Re-watching Jim Schwartz, coach of the Detroit Lions, or Mark Hughes, manager of Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League, lose it over handshakes gone awry doesn’t grow tiresome. And because sports pit the same protagonists against each other season after season, these mini-dramas keep on giving.
In the NFL, The Handshake, Part I, was last October. After his Lions lost 25-19 to the San Francisco 49ers, Schwartz didn’t take at all kindly to the over-exuberant handshake and backslap he got from the Niners’ winning coach, Jim Harbaugh. So he chased and shoulder-barged him. Words were exchanged. Players stepped in to keep them apart.
“That’s totally on me,” Harbaugh said later. “I shook his hand too hard.”
Part II is in prime time Sunday night, when their teams meet again at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. This time, will the coaches act like big boys?
There was also a will-they-or-won’t-they handshake question across the pond in the Premier League, at Hughes’ QPR. English newspapers said Hughes’ defender, Anton Ferdinand, was contemplating not shaking hands with John Terry and Ashley Cole of Chelsea.
Unlike Schwartz’s oversensitive reaction to Harbaugh’s handshake, this one was perhaps easier to understand, if not sympathize with.
When Terry and Ferdinand played against each other 11 months ago, things turned ugly. They traded insults after a disputed penalty call. Ferdinand goaded Terry, the Chelsea captain, about an alleged extramarital affair. It later led to Terry being summoned to court to face charges that he racially abused Ferdinand, who is black. Terry was subsequently cleared in July. Cole testified in Terry’s defense.
There still seems to be ill feeling.
Hughes said Friday that his team will shake hands with Chelsea’s players, if that’s what the Premier League wants, but also suggested that Ferdinand could opt out.
“I’m conscious of the fact that every time we play Chelsea the issue of the handshake clouds everybody’s mind and the focus is taken away from a great Premier League game,” he said. “It’s not my decision to make. We’re governed by the Premier League and if we’re told it will go ahead, then we will do that.”
But he added: “Everybody has a mind of their own and will make a personal decision.”
Some commentators suggest that the tradition of pre-game handshakes — in soccer as well as other sports — has become more trouble than it is worth and should be abandoned.
But it does at least serve to give the impression that the players have a minimum of respect for one another, for the match officials and for the rules — even if they don’t subsequently display that on the field. It also reminds everyone, not least the excessively tribal soccer fans, that this is sport, not conflict. And all of that makes this tradition a worthwhile one.
If Ferdinand is still harboring a grudge, so be it. Refusing to shake hands with Terry and Cole would telegraph that. But would it say much more? No.
That was also true of Wayne Bridge’s refusal in 2010 to shake the hand of Terry. That was after newspapers reported that Chelsea’s captain had an affair with Bridge’s former partner, Vanessa Perroncel. Bridge perhaps felt that he made a point by studiously ignoring Terry’s outstretched right hand, but what that point was exactly was never clear. Terry surely didn’t lose sleep over it.
Hughes and Roberto Mancini, the manager of English champion Manchester City, also looked silly when they had a handshake spat in February last year. After their teams drew 1-1, Mancini pointedly didn’t look at Hughes as he extended his hand. Hughes took offense and snatched his own hand away.
“I am little bit old-fashioned,” Hughes said. “Maybe I misread it, but I just felt Roberto didn’t really acknowledge the efforts of my team and how well we’d done by the manner of the way he offered his hand.”
It was all very petty. That is often the case when sportsmen make mountains out of handshakes. Shaking hands can reflect well on them. It at least can make them look like adults capable of putting personal differences aside for the duration of a game or able to graciously accept defeat — even if they are seething inside.
But, often, making an issue of what really is a token gesture can make them look small-minded.
So get on with it.
Shake. Move on.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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