Moments before his execution during the Irish Civil War, Robert Erskine Childers, novelist and nationalist, shook hands with each member of the firing squad. What is more, he made his teenage son promise to seek out and shake hands with every man who signed his death warrant.

Six years earlier British and German troops called a Christmas day truce, shook hands and even famously played football together before returning to the task of annihilating each other.

Around the world, the handshake enjoys an elevated status in the codes that govern how a decent chap conducts himself. The more adverse the circumstances the more dignified and admirable the gesture.

Nearly a hundred years on from that famous match, however, a couple of other soccer incidents are showing that not everyone is as attached to that most civilised of civilities. On Saturday Luis Suárez, the Liverpool striker, spurned the extended hand of Patrice Evra, the Manchester United captain who had secured an eight match ban for the Uruguayan by accusing him of racial abuse in a previous match. Suárez, convincingly cast in the role of bad guy, denied the allegations but the footballing authorities (and indeed the wider public outside of Liverpool) took Evra’s side. With the punishment served, it was held to be important that a line be drawn at their next meeting. Negotiations between the clubs were held (no doubt sherpas were sent in and memoranda of understanding drawn up) and it was agreed that in the handshakes that now precede all matches, the two would bury the hatchet. But Suárez reneged on the agreement and pulled his hand away, securing a second and even louder round of denunciation and confirming the widespread view that he is a beast and bounder.

A few weeks earlier, a pre-match handshake was cancelled altogether after it became clear that QPR’s Anton Ferdinand would not shake hands with John Terry, the then England captain, who is also accused of racial abuse.

Ferdinand’s behaviour in refusing the handshake has drawn less condemnation, while Suárez’s conduct has drawn much. But then Ferdinand is currently deemed to have been the victim whereas Suárez is not (though he presumably sees himself in such terms). Few seemed to note that forgiveness must come first from the victim before it can be accepted by the perpetrator.

Banx cartoon

The conventional view is that uncouth, millionaire footballers are undermining a code of conduct and in so doing are demonstrating the coarsening of society everywhere. They are denounced for setting a bad example to the young – as if modern footballers ever did much else. Ferdinand and Suárez, both products of broken homes, were perhaps too oikish to know how a chap behaves; Evra, the polyglot son of a diplomat, knew the code and offered his hand.

But while all commentators lament this loutishness, perhaps there is something to be said for the honesty of refusing the hand of someone you loathe; of not pretending you are ready to forgive and forget. It may dent the comfortable image of sport – or indeed any other realm where a handshake is rejected. It may be bad manners but perhaps there is more integrity to it. In too many cases of public reconciliation the offer of the hand is a statement that you are the bigger man, someone who can rise above any insult. This is why political handshakes are so carefully choreographed, often with parties walking towards each other with arms already outstretched so neither can be denoted as the profferer or receiver of the gesture.

Within a year of the squaddies shaking hands in no-mans land, the Christmas truce was breaking down as both sides deployed poison gas on the other. A handshake and a kickabout between combatants could not alter the fundamentals of war. Outside of the schoolyard, you cannot create reconciliation with a handshake – only its appearance.

President Kennedy is credited with advising a colleague that you should “always forgive your enemies, but never forget their names”. It was a suitably ambiguous remark for a man who managed to convince the world that he was the compassionate Kennedy and that ruthlessness was the province of his younger brother, Robert. But perhaps what Kennedy was advocating was merely appearing to forgive your enemies, a more graceful but less noble stance.

England’s football authorities would endorse that approach; but their soccer stars, whatever their other failings, decided integrity was more important than grace.

robert.shrimsey@ft.com

Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article