Football will emerge from its enforced hiatus into a very different landscape in the coming months, but of the raft of potential post-coronavirus changes one stands out as being among the most palatable: a ban on spitting.
Football’s scourges are multitude, from the truly malignant such as lingering racism to the more banal such as the petty gamesmanship players so often stoop to.
Spitting, though, is one footballing affliction that has always seemed among the most wantonly needless.
It’s as if when slipping on a pair of boots, professional footballers the world over take on an uncontrollable urge to eject gobfuls of bile as far and wide as they possibly can, marking their territory from goal line to goal line and corner flag to corner flag.
Sometimes it’s aided and abetted by fluids from water bottles, briefly ingested before being flung right back out; sometimes it’s a cheeky side-spit through gritted teeth before resuming play; sometimes, and most egregiously, it’s wads of phlegm being hoicked up from a footballer’s inner depths and then flobbed out onto the itch.
From Rooney to Ronaldo, from Messi to Mbappe, footballers are all at it.
Some players can’t even stop at spitting on the pitch, instead launching germ-filled mouthfuls at each other.
The Netherlands’ Frank Rijkaard – a man by most accounts fitting the very definition of a ‘cultured’ midfielder – is widely remembered for one of the most spectacularly shameful spitting incidents in football history, spraying repeatedly into the permed hair of West Germany’s Rudi Voller as the pair were sent off at the Italia ’90 World Cup.
But Rijkaard is far from the only player to stoop so low down the years.
Footballers’ phlegm-filled habits occasionally follow them long after they have hung up their boots, as evidenced by former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher’s infamous response to a rival fan goading him in his car.
Carragher’s playing instincts instantly kicked in as he lowered the window and unleashed a liberal dose of bile at the offending fan’s young daughter in the passenger seat.
Nor is spitting a footballing fixation confined to the pitch; bafflingly, it also extends to the touchline, where even men as unwaveringly suave as Jose Mourinho can’t resist rising from the dugout to expectorate mid-match – in Mourinho’s case usually facilitated by a gobful of water from a nearby bottle.
So it comes as welcome news that when football does finally resume after the Covid-19 chaos, FIFA are considering sanctioning players who spit here there and everywhere, for fear of potentially spreading coronavirus.
Speaking on the potential punishments, FIFA’s Medical Committee chairman Michel D’Hooghe said: “[Spitting] is a common practice in football and it is not very hygienic.
“So when we start football again I think we should have to avoid that at the maximum. The question is whether that will be possible. Perhaps they can give [players] a yellow card.
“It is unhygienic and a good way to spread the virus. This is one of the reasons why we have to be very careful before we start again.”
The question of whether footballers even need to be spitting so much in the first place is one that has been taken to scientific levels, with the go-to excuse being that exercise supposedly increases the levels of protein secreted into saliva, making the mucus thicker and thus compelling it to be expelled from the body, as footballers are so wont to do.
There is also the ingenious method of ‘carb-rinsing’ by which footballers can supposedly benefit by swilling sugary sports drinks around their mouths before spitting them out, stimulating the brain into thinking it has consumed energy and increasing alertness with better results than actually swallowing the drink.
Players must have thought Christmas had come early when handed that particular license to spit from their medical teams.
But even that begs the question: does the specific exertion in football somehow lend itself to players needing to expunge their bodily fluids quite so readily?
After all, marathon runners seem to manage just fine without leaving a steady stream of bile behind them for 42 kilometers. Likewise basketball players, for example, or practitioners of countless other indoor and outdoor physical pursuits.
Apart from baseball, there seems no other sport in which the protagonists are compelled to spit with quite such ferocity and frequency as footballers.
So flippant as it may seem, of all the changes brought about in football by the Covid-19 crisis – good and bad, big and small – we may at least glimpse the chance to have a game less drenched in the saliva of those who play it.
The fact that we need a global pandemic of biblical proportions to tell footballers what they should really already know about their hygiene habits may seem dramatic, but sadly appears to be the case.
By Liam Tyler