Some say the most important thing in football and life is winning. But sometimes sportsmanship in lieu of a win is pretty okay too. FIFA recognises these moments with the Fair Play Award every year, except (for some reason) in 1994.
This accolade goes to anyone from individual players to whole clubs and federations, in recognition of charitable initiatives that may sometimes seem more like public relations exercises to the jaded observer—even fans have gotten the Fair Play Award just for behaving themselves at matches.
We found ten memorable moments in football that will restore your faith in humanity—and most of these people never got the FIFA Fair Play Award.
#10. Cristiano Ronaldo breaks a fan’s nose and apologises by gifting his jersey
He may be best known for his stepover, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s freekick is also something to be reckoned with. His kick can send a ball flying at speeds exceeding 130kph—or 80mph, if you insist on being difficult—fast enough to raise eyebrows on the Autobahn.
Back in 2011, CR7 was just a couple of months shy of his third year with Real Madrid, and in the first half of a La Liga match against Getafe CF, he had sent the ball into the stands of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Unbeknownst to him, one spectator inadvertently caught the ball with his face and had to watch the remainder of the match with a broken nose.
When the match concluded, Real Madrid had won 4-0, and CR7 was named the Man of the Match. At this point, nobody would have faulted the man, who Forbes just ordained as one of the highest-paid athletes of 2011, for departing from the field and continuing with his life. But CR7 apparently noticed a congregation of medics crowding around the injured spectator, and after having been made aware of what happened, he made his way over to the spectator to presumably pre-empt a lawsuit.
The injured spectator did not seem particularly litigious—he sat through the whole match even with only a damaged schnoz as a souvenir. But with a genuine CR7 jersey worth over €100 between fans, it could be said that there was adequate compensation given.
This wouldn’t be the last time that a ball sent awry by Ronaldo would result in a lucky fan being gifted his jersey—the gift of his shirt would serve as a consolation to another injured fan in 2015.
#9 Oliver Kahn consoles Santiago Cañizares
Der Titan is known to get a bit combative on the pitch, but a softer side of Oliver Kahn surfaced during the final matchup of the 2000-2001 UEFA Champions League between Bayern Munich and Valencia.
This was the only all-penalty final in the history of the league and it was more a duel between goalkeepers than a team performance. Oliver Kahn and his counterpart, Santiago Cañizares, each conceded one goal before the match went into extra time.
The tie would not be broken until the seventh round of the shoot-out, when Bayern’s Thomas Linke put one past Cañizares and Valencia’s Mauricio Pellegrino failed to follow suit against Kahn. With the tension of the tie finally broken, Bayern Munich players went into celebration mode.
But the Titan, apparently remembering his performance in 1999 against Manchester United and recalling the pain of a final lost through the failure to prevent a goal, promptly ceased his rightful celebration to console a distraught Cañizares.
For this uncharacteristic display of sportsmanship and empathy, Oliver Kahn earned a UEFA Fair Play Award, and in the eyes of fans, redemption for his abrasive behaviour in past years.
#8 David Luiz and Dani Alves bro it out with James Rodríguez
James Rodríguez, a rising star who played for the Colombian national team since his youth, almost single-handedly brought Colombia to its first ever World Cup quarterfinals by scoring two goals against Uruguay in the Round of 16 stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
By the time the Colombian and Brazilian national teams faced each other at the Arena Castelão, James had been named the Man of the Match during two previous meetings with Greece and the Ivory Coast, and he was to be named the top goal-scoring player of the 2014 World Cup.
With the weight of the Colombian national team’s expected revival resting on the 22-year-old midfielder’s shoulders, losing to the hosts by one goal and seeing his nation’s first real chance at the World Cup vanish must have seemed like the end of the world to James.
In a heartwarming display of Brazilian hospitality and collectivism, two of Brazil’s defenders at the time, David Luiz and Dani Alves, poured support and consolation on the teary eyed Colombian.
At the end of the 2014 World Cup, James was awarded the Golden Boot, having earned the title of Top Goalscorer with six goals across Colombia’s six matches in the tournament.
#7 Carles Puyol shares the limelight with Eric Abidal
The Spaniard popularly known as Tarzan, Carles Puyol, should be the first name you see when you google the word “sportsmanship”. Puyol has played for Barcelona throughout his entire 15-year professional career, and during that time, he set a high bar for honourable conduct on the pitch and refusing to cut his hair short.
Puyol has prevented altercations from breaking out on the field, reigned in teammates from over-exuberant goal celebrations, and even shared trophy raisings with former teammates—most notably, in 2010, when Puyol raised the Joan Gamper Trophy alongside Ronaldinho, who was with Barcelona before his move to AC Milan.
When Barcelona won the Champions League in 2011, Puyol gave his captain’s armband and dedicated the victory to another teammate, Eric Abidal, who had just overcome liver cancer. This, and other displays of sportsmanship selected from throughout Puyol’s career have been compiled for your tearful viewing here.
When Puyol finally stowed his cleats and retired in 2014, he was hailed as a legend and one of the sport’s all-time greatest defenders.
#6 Jaba Kankava stops Oleh Husyev from choking on his own tongue
While actually swallowing your own tongue is virtually impossible (while it is still attached) on account of how it is attached, it has been known that unconscious footballers can actually die from suffocation caused by the tongue blocking the airway. A recent example of this happening would be the untimely demise of Kurdistan’s Soran Tahiri (of Hawler FC) during a friendly in 2017.
In the 2013-2014 season of the Ukranian Premier League, during a match between FC Dynamo Kiev and FC Dnipro, Kiev midfielder Oleh Husyev, went after a loose ball near the opposing goal area, took the knee of Dnipro goalkeeper Denys Boyko to his head, and crumpled onto the pitch beside Jaba Kankava.
Ignoring the fact that the ball was still in play at the time, Kankava noticed that Husyev remained unconscious and lept into action, using his own hand to dislodge Huysev’s tongue from blocking his airway. He earned a breathing Husyev and a bitten hand for his efforts.
For his quick thinking and selfless actions, Kankava was credited with saving the life of Huysev and also earned the Ukrainian Order of Merit.
#5 Francis Koné has also pulled on a tongue (or four)
This tongue-blocking-the-airway thing seems to happen to unconscious athletes quite often. Francis Koné, a striker with FC Zbrojovka Brno in the Czech First League, has apparently dealt with it four times in an eight-year span. Koné had performed the procedure, in his own words, “Twice in Africa, once in Thailand”, before having to do the same in the Czech Republic in 2017.
After making enough money to get his first pair of cleats by washing cars and crab-fishing, Koné chased the dream of going professional in England. As an 18-year-old semi-professional, he went by way of Thailand, where he first discovered that he could get an unconscious person breathing again by pulling their tongue out of the way.
Koné found himself doing the same thing on the pitch in Togo soon after, and then again in Ivory Coast, and he was bitten every time. He then went on to play in Oman, Portugal, and Hungary. By the time Koné would perform his magic trick for the fourth time, he was in the Czech Republic with FC Slovácko, playing against Bohemians 1905 of Prague, at the start of the Czech First League 2017-18 season.
By the time the Bohemian goalkeeper Martin Berkovec fell unconscious following an impact with defender Daniel Krch, Koné’s instincts were already attuned to the possibility of a blocked airway. He wasted no time and set out to save yet another life within a second of hearing the sound of skulls colliding—despite enduring overt racism in the stadium for the past half hour.
For his life-saving reflexes, Koné earned a dinner invite from Berkovec, Captain Picard handed him the 2017 FIFA Fair Play Award, and Bohemian supporters won a lifetime supply of humble pie.
#4 Paolo Di Canio stops play when Paul Gerrard twists his knee
Likely more known for his temper than sportsmanship, Paolo Di Canio is perhaps the least obvious recipient of the 2001 FIFA Fair Play Award. Despite his frequent brashness on the pitch and apparent fondness for fascism, Di Canio won the award for taking the conscious step of stopping his team’s attempt to capitalise on a scoring opportunity while the opposing goalkeeper was injured.
Back in 2000, Di Canio was still playing with West Ham United, in a Premier League match against Everton, following an eleven-match ban (for pushing referee Paul Alcock) that had him benched until the year before.
West Ham United had just escaped the possibility of a seventh consecutive defeat at Everton, thanks to a late equaliser by Frederic Kanoute. But another opportunity to score arose in the final minutes of the match when Everton’s goalkeeper Paul Gerrard collided with a charging Kanoute and Trevor Sinclair directed the loose ball towards Di Canio.
Instead of capitalising on the opportunity and turning the draw into an almost certain win, Di Canio acted almost reflexively to snatch the ball in midair and direct attention to the injured goalkeeper, who was still curled up in pain at the edge of the penalty area.
For his actions, Di Canio earned the stunned silence of both team managers, a standing ovation from the home crowd at Goodison Park, a clean slate, and the 2001 Fifa Fair Play Award.
#3 Morten Wieghorst gives away a free kick in the interest of fair play
It was during the 2003 Lunar New Year Cup, then called the Carlsberg Cup, Iran was up against Denmark League XI in the Hong Kong Stadium (in Hong Kong), when one of the 15,000 or so spectators decided it would be amusing to mimic the halftime whistle.
Thinking that he had just heard the official signal for halftime, Alireza Vahedi Nikbakht, a midfielder on the Iranian team scooped the ball up in his hands and helpfully handed it to the referee. Alireza was hit with a hand ball penalty for his troubles.
Amidst the ensuing roar of disapproval in the stadium, the captain of the Danish team, Morten Wieghorst, conferred with his coach, and both Mortens decided to let the opportunity slide in the name of fair play. Despite needing the equaliser, Wieghorst gave the ball a nonchalant boot and sent the penalty kick wide of the goal.
Iran won the match by one, went on to the finals against Uruguay, and ultimately lost in a penalty shoot-out, while Denmark went on to take third place in the tournament after beating Hong Kong (2-1). Wieghorst earned a fair play award from the Olympic Committee and was named the 2003 Danish Footballer of the Year by the Danish Football Association.
#2 Miroslav Klose gives away an early lead by admitting to a hand ball
At a time when the highest level of Italian professional football was racked with corruption scandals, Miroslav Klose seemed to stand out as one of the incorruptible. And he’s apparently made a habit of standing for fair play, even if, every now and then, a referee needed some convincing.
In 2005, while playing in the Bundesliga for Sportverein Werder Bremen against Deutscher Sportclub Arminia Bielefeld, Klose actually took the trouble to contest a decision by referee Herbert Fandel and refused to accept a penalty kick awarded to his team. He earned a fair play award from the German Football Association, and he would get another in 2012.
Striking for Società Sportiva Lazio in 2012, the German scored a goal three minutes into a Serie A match against SS Calcio Napoli. The only problem was that Klose’s hand had inadvertently contacted the ball—and every Neapolitan within earshot of the Stadio San Paolo was even more certain of that fact than he was.
There was no argument or drama—just a confession delivered to the referee’s ear by Klose. It’s not like he desperately needed that goal anyway. Klose’s status as Lazio’s top goal scorer was certain even before the conclusion of the Serie A 2012-13 season, and despite losing that match to Napoli 3-0, Lazio went on to lift the Coppa Italia that year.
#1 Marcelo Bielsa orders Leeds United to allow an equalising goal for goodwill
At the end of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season, both Aston Villa and Leeds United were seeking to occupy the coveted top spots that would have them automatically promoted to the Premier League. But in a heated match against Aston Villa at Elland Road, Bielsa apparently decided that Leeds United would instead be gracious hosts and take a moral victory over a hollow one earned through bad sportsmanship.
After a goalless first half, chaos erupted when a challenge by Leeds defenders that left Villa striker Jonathan Kodjia injured and curled up on the pitch. With a man down, the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to cease play. But even with Kodjia still laying on the field, Leeds forward Tyler Roberts passed the ball to midfielder Mateusz Klich and he was allowed score despite being offside.
With a brawl beginning to erupt on the field, Bielsa ordered his team to allow Villa to score an equaliser. Villa midfielder Albert Adomah was then permitted to walk the ball into the goal, unharassed except for an ineffectual challenge by Swedish defender Pontus Jansson, who apparently didn’t get the memo.
For this orchestrated display of sportsmanship, which would be regarded as one of the most contentious managerial decisions of the year, the 2019 FIFA Fair Play Award was awarded to both Marcelo Bielsa and his team.
Kevin Eichenberger will get back to writing about the world’s most popular sport as soon as he gets that pesky speck of dust out of his eye.