Thursday, 19 November 2009


This is going to be a post about football. I know that's not necessarily an interesting thing to talk about, but to be fair I haven't done it before, and one post in a year is quite forgivable I think. Whilst my passion for football has become a subtler, quieter one in recent years, in many ways it burns at least as brightly as it ever did. For some reason the sport retains the ability to generate within me an enthusiasm that I've found impossible to recreate elsewhere. That's not to say it's the most important thing in my life, but it's certainly where I feel most free, most expressive, most competitive, yet paradoxically, most in control. The absurdity of attaching meaning to anything in life is never more heightened than in the pursuit of a small round leather-coated balloon, yet somehow it's that knowledge that none of it matters that makes it matter so much, that allows me to lose myself almost completely in the immediacy of two teams on a medium-sized patch of grass.

I'm talking there specifically about playing the game, but I still watch a reasonable amount of football too, and can identify somewhat with the tribalism that supporting a club or national side tends to engender. I have a favourite team, and sound reasons for favouring them. My bias at times knows fairly distant limits, but it is by no means an unconscious bias, and my partisanship is never without at least a trace of irony.

Characteristically, I find myself two paragraphs into a post without having come close to the specific issue I set out to discuss, which is Thierry Henry's 'controversial' handball versus Ireland. To summarise the incident, the game was decided by a goal precipitated directly by this clear example of foul play, and allowed France, the home side, to qualify for the World Cup Finals in South Africa next summer at the expense of The Republic of Ireland. Had the goal been disallowed, either team would have had the remainder of extra time to score and win the game outright, or failing that, emerge victorious through the relative lottery of a penalty shootout. Instead there was anti-climax, disappointment, outrage, vitriol, a formal complaint, shrugging of shoulders, and general disillusionment.

There are several facets of this debate which seem to demand comment. Firstly, on a cheatingness scale of 1 to 10, Henry's act probably rated around 4. There are a couple of such incidents in most games. I don't think it was premeditated. It is unfortunate that it was allowed to go unpunished in such an advanced area of the pitch at such a vital moment, but in itself as an isolated occurrence of law transgressance it was neither malicious nor dangerous nor petulant.

Secondly, I do not believe that this injustice strengthens the case for using video replays to assist refereeing decisions. There are many incidents in matches which can be interpreted questionably by a match official, or missed by a match official. Offsides, foul tackles, shirt pulling, handballs, ball in or out of play, foul throws, the whole obstruction vs shielding the ball debate, the list goes on. Any of these can lead directly to a goal. I cannot see how it would be fairer to treat selected categories of these differently from the remainder by allowing an extra official, located in front of a TV screen, to tell the referee what his decision should be. To complicate matters, many such incidents can be interpreted in quite different ways even upon second and third viewings, in slow motion, from multiple angles. There is a real danger that an incident could be referred only to result in a delay of two or three minutes whilst the TV referee ponders over inconclusive footage, under unbearable pressure to come up with a decision which cannot reasonably be reached. Surely, the least unsatisfactory way forward, and fairest way forward, is to allow the on-field officials to retain total control of what goes on between the white lines?

Nextly, there is scope for improvement. Micro-chip technology may soon be used to notify a referee immediately when the ball crosses the goal line. No delay; no controversy; no problem. We may see additional officials behind each goal in selected competitions before too long. This should all but eliminate goalmouth incidents where the referee's view is obscured (though I maintain the linesman should have seen Henry's misdemeanour in this instance). There is certainly a case for younger, fitter match officials. We currently have men in their forties trying to keep up with professional athletes half their age. I appreciate that life experience may bring with it greater calmness and objectivity, but this is of limited use if you are 60 yards away with an obscured view. In this country, all top-level officials are now fully professional, but all the FA did to achieve this was to pay the existing, amateur referees more. An intensive, fast-track system is required to train promising young referees to officiate in top level games within 2-3 years.

And finally, isn't injustice exhilarating? Football, and (reluctant though I am to use a ball game as an analogy for life), perhaps life, would be very dull indeed if everyone got exactly what they deserved, all the time. If the virtuous people always won out, and the lazy, selfish, rule-breaking, deceiving, scheming, cowardly, jealous, greedy people were always found out, punished, and corrected. A large part of football's appeal, to me at least, is the opportunity to triumph in unfavourable circumstances, to pick myself up off the floor and hurtle into the next tackle, to chase an unlikely dream in spite of a muddy pitch, a howling wind, a dirty kit, a cheating opponent, and an incompetent bloody referee.


Anonymous said...

Still doesn't change the fact that the game should never have occurred in te first place. If FIFA hadn't fixed the draw to get the big name teams through then there wouldn't be so much bad feeling.

I hear what you're saying about triumph against adversity. But the whole point of sport is that there are rules. If the rules aren't adhered to, or if the rules favour certain teams, then the whole thing becomes meaningless.

Ben said...

The seeding decision is another debate altogether and, I agree, a highly dubious one, although there's only so much 'fixing' a governing body can do - Slovenia threw a spanner in the works of their plan, just as Ireland would have done if Robbie Keane didn't panic a couple of times when through on goal in the second half of their second leg.

It's difficult not to become disheartened at times when results are affected by poor officials and dishonesty from players. This weekend in the Premiership the majority of games had something seriously wrong with them - penalties that shouldn't have been, goals that came from free kicks that weren't fouls, offside goals allowed to stand.

Yet attendances at matches remain pretty steady, and TV viewing figures are still healthy. This is because we all know deep down that for the most part rules are adhered to, and they tend not to favour anyone, at least not consistently.

Cheer up - Blackburn are a decent side!

Ben said...

To address your second paragraph again: part of my argument was that football, when you think about it, already is meaningless, which for me is a big part of what makes it so thrillingly absorbing.

As for rules being adhered to: they never are, anywhere, and wouldn't be required in the first place if people were universally good.