Football’s small pleasures: Handshake confusion

After all the furore around whether or not the Leicester players should be utterly, utterly ashamed of themselves for beating Liverpool without Claudio Ranieri, I’ve come up with an idea that will help separate the managerial men from the boys: instead of being allowed to appoint who they like, every club should be randomly assigned an anonymous manager at the start of each season.

You’d have to get a bit creative to ensure the anonymity was protected, of course. They’d have to be stitched each morning into masks in the team colours, preferably with a big question mark covering the face, and deliver all press conferences and team talks in a Stephen Hawking computer voice. But these are mere details.

It’s genius. For the purist, it adds an extra bit of intrigue to each team’s tactics and would force the likes of Michael Cox and Jonathan Wilson to second-guess themselves: is that Tony Pulis at West Ham, or is it Pep Guardiola adapting his game to Andy Carroll’s strengths? This beautiful flowing football at Manchester United could be the work of Antonio Conte, but we could well be seeing the renaissance of an unappreciated genius like Brendan Rodgers or Arsene Wenger.

For those who love the soap opera and conspiracy around football, it’s a season-long guessing game where finding tiny clues is rewarded and red herrings are endlessly discussed. This guy is grumpy and defensive in every way, so there’s a good chance it’s Jose Mourinho, but there’s always a small chance it’s David Moyes back in the Old Trafford dug-out. You could even throw in a few curveballs: sure, this guy is tall and energetic so it’s probably Jurgen Klopp, but it could just as easily be a comedy figure like Billy Connolly or Arsene Wenger.

It would culminate in a massive trophy presentation event at Wembley, where each manager is lined up on a custom-made 20-man podium and unmasks in order from bottom to top. Behold! The man who just led Chelsea to title glory was none other than I, Gary Megson, all along! Stick that in your pipe, conventional wisdom!

The best bit, though, is that it would largely get rid of the world’s most tedious will-they-won’t-they dynamic. As an international gesture of peace and conciliation, handshakes ought to be entirely uncontroversial by their very nature, but somehow football has made it into a literal arms race. Whenever there is known beef – which as we know is the best kind, and far preferable to questionable beef – between two opposing managers or players, it’s the same old thing. Can they overcome their differences? Will one of them be a bit of a dick? Will Short Petty Manager X shake the hand of Tall Dancing Manager Y, as they would become known routinely in my brave new world?

To me, this is focusing on entirely the wrong aspect of the pre- and post-match handshake. Instead, we should ask the same question we ask of ourselves when meeting new people: will they be able to shake hands successfully without looking like massive idiots? Appropriately, Moyes began his first game in charge at Old Trafford by utterly failing at this most basic task, misreading Mourinho’s attempt at a high five and appearing to start a spot of ballroom dancing with him.

It’s for this reason that I actively look forward to the medal presentations after major finals. In particular, there is some confusion about whether the assembled officials, diplomats and politicians will go for the tried-and-tested conventional handshake method, or the more fashionable arm-wrestler grasp that the young people are doing these days.

One of my favourite examples of this was after the 2014 World Cup final. The first few suits in the line, including Sepp Blatter and Angela Merckel, go for the traditional method but the sixth of the ten is Michel Platini. Whether through an attempt to assert himself as a former footballer who knows where they’re coming from or a misguided attempt to look hip and young and cool on his doomed path to the Fifa throne (I assume there’s a throne?), he unfailingly goes for the overarm method, even in the face of disconsolate Argentinian players who just want to half-heartedly touch palms and get out of Dodge.

This gradually filters down the line and the others start to do it too, with Miroslav Klose awkwardly forcing Blatter into it at 7:35. It’s this atmosphere of confusion that leads to what happens when matchwinner Mario Gotze approaches Merckel. She goes for the arm-wrestler stance the previous suit had greeted Gotze with, while the forward goes for the conventional method. Realising what the other is doing, both adjust their approach exactly the same moment, resulting not only in no handshake taking place, but Gotze having to slip his hand out across the underside of Merckel’s breast. Surely that deserves to enter football lore just as much as Bobby Moore’s muddy hands.

If I were Gotze, I wouldn’t remember that day as the day I won the World Cup for my country; I’d remember it as the day I messed up a simple handshake so badly I accidentally felt up the head of state. We need more of that kind of awkward humanisation. Bring on the next medal ceremony.

Steven Chicken