The Pre-Match Handshake Is A Pointless Exercise In Nonsense And Must Be Stopped Immediately, Else I’ll Go Postal

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

This piece first appeared on SB NATION on 3 February 2012. However, the fact that Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez will be playing one another this weekend means it remains relevant. Thank you, football. Thank you.

In the end, amid rumours that the entire of Queen’s Park Rangers’ side were set to “snub” John Terry’s limpid and outstretched foreleg in solidarity with Anton Ferdinand, the FA did the sensible thing, and sent both sides onto the pitch without insisting that they line-up in front of the director’s box and wobble one another wrists. The disappointment from the assembled media was palpable, as both sides of the delicately stoked either/or, will he/won’t we narrative collapsed into “oh, we’ll never know”. A thousand opinion pieces cried out, and were suddenly silenced.

Given the dispiriting events of the rest of the day, perhaps that was for the best. And the fact that anybody not called Anton Ferdinand was arrogant enough to have an opinion on the should or the shouldn’t was, of course, as depressing as it was inevitable; special mention here must go to Andre Villas-Boas, who was driven to describe a handshake as “extremely important, extremely important”, adding “This game is based on good values more than anything else. These players should continue to promote these good values.”

[A brief pause while we all think of the most appropriate retort to that.]

The compulsory pre-game handshake is a relatively recent innovation for England. Previously, unless there were nationalistic jingles to be mumbled or dignitaries to be blinked at, players were thought to be entirely capable of going from dressing room to pitch without needing to formally greet one another. Chances are they’d met before. Captains shook hands with one another and the referee at the coin-toss, of course, but that makes a certain symbolic sense: here are the figureheads of each team, formally acknowledging the other.

Like so many things that weren’t broken, the Premier League fixed it. Since 2004, teams have followed the international model of lining up either side of the centre-line, standing to attention for a ceremony that entirely by coincidence lasts exactly as long as one advert break. I suppose we should be grateful that the Premier League haven’t yet seen fit to bowdlerise a coronation march in their own honour.

It’s not as though footballers don’t have any opportunity to shake hands if they want to. They stand next to one another in tunnel, after all, and you can see ex-colleagues, national teammates and friends exchanging handshakes, hugs, and backslaps. Jose Mourinho memorably kissed Carles Puyol before knocking his Barcelona team out of the Champions League, and the habitual ‘good luck’ acknowledgements of the goalkeepers’ union are always heartwarming; two men who know that, whatever happens, theirs is a shared, strange existence.

Handshakes themselves aren’t the problem, we should be clear. The handshake is a social multitool: a proffered paw that will stretch to salutation, forgiveness, respect, acceptance, leave-taking, congratulation, agreement, solemnity, the benediction of peace upon a fellow worshipper, and the removal of stones from horses’ hooves, as determined by context. It’s the requirement of same. By making something that should be both individual and optional into something generic and compulsory, the FA and the PL have performed the miraculous feat of shafting the thing in both directions: it’s completely meaningless most of the time, except on the rare occasions when it’s cosmically overblown. If you make somebody do something, then it means nothing. And if you make somebody do something, and they don’t, then it means too much. These are empty conventions; they mean nothing in the observance and everything in the breach.

There’s a simple test that you can run on anything in the world: does that fact that it exists (a) make the world prettier, or (b) make the world funnier, or (c) make the world better? If something fails on each score, it’s not worth having, and can — no, should — be placed gently aside, then set on fire. The handshake ritual? No, no, and thrice no.

Already, the pencils are being sharpened, the lenses wiped, the country is bracing for Handshake-gate, part 68468126. Rio Ferdinand, brother of Anton, lines up against Terry this Sunday. Will he? Won’t he? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

It means nothing.

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