Now that the international break is over without incident, and we know the 32 teams who will be competing for the World Cup in South Africa next year, it’s time to get back to Aston Villa. Wait, there was an incident? Oh, I have been out of the loop, haven’t I!
Alright, I’m labelling this 0% Villa, but I do have the less than tenuous link of Richard Dunne’s involvement and I’m going to exploit it to shoehorn my two penneth into the debate. Mmmm-kay??
Firstly, as a disclaimer, I didn’t watch either leg of the Ireland vs France World Cup play-offs, but I’m not writing about the specific details here, so don’t stop reading just yet. There was an incident after the final whistle in Dublin that should be remembered. Although the details may be disputed, the scenes that followed surely can’t be regarded as a good advertisement for the game. That’s all that needs to be said at this point, but I’ll return to it towards the end.
So on to Paris, and despite some alleged proclamations from certain Frenchmen that the tie was over, Ireland had everything to play for. 33 minutes in and and Robbie Keane restored the status quo. Game very much on and, assuming more goals would be forthcoming with close to an hour remaining, Ireland effectively only needed to score one less goal than France to qualify. However, with no further score during the remainder of normal time, extra time and penalties beckoned.
But then in the 103rd minute Thierry Henry cheated by keeping the ball in play with his hand, setting up William Gallas with an unmissable opportunity to book France a place in South Africa next year. Yes, make no mistake, I don’t want to argue about the morality of cheating, or who else would have done the same, or even who really is at fault here, let’s just call a spade a spade for a moment – Henry deliberately handled the ball and gained an advantage which is against the rules and is therefore cheating. No more to discuss there, let’s move on.
Thierry Henry has developed a reputation for honesty and integrity to the point that, combined with his obvious talent on the field and his natural wit and intelligence, he’s rightly considered an ambassador of the game, both literally and metaphorically. Naturally, a certain amount of surprise is generated when Thierry Henry blatantly cheats. Let’s take a moment to think about why Henry might be driven to cheating.
Thierry Henry is a fantastic footballer, I’m a genuine fan of the player and the man, but he’s not super human. He didn’t have time to consider the pros and cons of handling the ball before he did so, he can only have made the decision instinctively. This means that despite his propensity for honesty, it’s still ingrained in him that it was worth the risk. Why? Quite possibly it was unlikely that he’d be caught and even if he was, the punishment would be slight. As it is, it paid off and he won’t be planning on booking himself a holiday during June next year.
I think I’m right in saying that FIFA have shot down the chances of a replay before the Irish had formally asked for one and I’m not convinced that would be the right solution anyway. 22 men kicking a piece of leather around is an unpredictable business and had this goal been disallowed, with 17 minutes left to play, there’s every chance that France may have scored another anyway. No one can say for certain, but if the chances of that happening are slim, the chances that they may have won the penalty shoot out are far greater. All thing being equal, it’s as likely that France could have still won under fair circumstances as the Irish. If a replay were held and France won then it would prove to have been pointless, but if Ireland were to be victorious then there would naturally be protestations over every little detail from the French. Plus, where do you hold it and how does the score from the previous leg(s) factor? No, I just don’t see it happening.
Again, I’m obviously not suggesting that Henry had time to consider all this, but as a professional with all his experience, he knows all of this and that lead him to deliberately handle the ball. What’s the worst that could have happened if the referee had spotted it? Goal disallowed, obviously. A yellow card perhaps, but a red would surely be unlikely? And if someone like Henry is willing to cheat when push comes to shove, what does it take some of his fellow professionals to cheat? So often it would appear that the answer is very little.
So what could persuade players not to cheat? You already know the answer, it’s punishment. Look, my moral values are what prevent me from wanting to rob a bank. I don’t want to discuss where I derive my moral compass, it’s a debate I’m very well versed in and you’ll get short shrift from me if you think it’s from any supernatural source. Sufficed to say that I know it’s wrong and it’s really for that reason that I don’t pull a stocking over my head and point a gun at a bank teller. However, when times get tough, when it gets to the wire, those morals could take a back seat my friend and it would take something a bit stronger to dissuade me. Ultimately, we have the rule of law and punishment for those who break the rules. I don’t want to go to prison, I’m far too pretty, so I won’t be engaging in a stick up any time soon.
UEFA recently made a ham-fisted attempt to inject some authority into the problem of diving by retrospectively punishing Eduardo based on video evidence. They soon backed down under howls of protest about witch hunts and claims about dangerous precedents being set. They most certainly could have gone about it better, but I supported the principle of intervening where justice had not been done and the rules allowed them to.
“Where will it all end?”, a friend asked me. Maybe with diving becoming a thing of the past is the obvious answer. Sure, it would be a lot of work to start with. Yes, a video board would have to review every dubious tackle. It might seem never ending. But eventually, it would become ingrained in the minds of the players that if they take a dive, a week or two later, maybe a month, they’ll be on the wrong end of a match ban. Imagine that coming through right before an important match. Don’t you think that the managers might be advising their players a bit differently under those circumstances than they are currently? I do.
I only really bring the Eduardo incident up as we have the means to introduce that method as a solution right now. Every professional game of a level worth being concerned about has cameras at the stadiums and the footage can be made available to a review board if required. It would be a bit bureaucratic and outside the spirit of the game, but it would work up to a point.
The downside to that approach is the retrospective nature and the accusations that will naturally be made that cases of cheating missed by the referee have effected the result, as is the case with Thierry Henry. I would still argue that over time the players would be less likely to cheat in the first place, but lets assume that such a system existed now and Thierry Henry still cheated. A video panel with power to ban Thierry Henry, even severely enough to miss the World Cup himself, wouldn’t be doing much justice in Irish eyes. Again, I don’t see replaying the match as a viable solution, so we have to seriously find a way to get this right in real time.
If you’re against video replays during games, I’m sorry folks, it’s time to reconsider. This is the World Cup we’re talking about here. It’s the most watched, arguably most prestigious sporting event in the world. It’s just that important that we get this right now. It is the 21st century after all.
One of the main arguments against referees having access to video replays during a match is that it will slow the game down. I don’t want that to happen any more than the next fan, although I can imagine the TV broadcasters might quite fancy a sly opportunity to slip in a commercial. Seriously, enduring the way that sport is presented on TV in America, that prospect alone is enough to convince me that this can’t be allowed to interrupt the game. With the technology at our disposal I don’t accept that it has to be that way though. As TV viewers we can view replays within seconds and all we’re generally missing while watching the video is live pictures of the players protesting to the referee. There’s a built in slack there to be exploited.
So, the use of the video replay would have to be as sympathetic to the flow of the game as possible. I don’t want to get bogged down with specifics here, but there’s clearly some situations that would benefit from taking a moment to review play and come to the correct decision and others where it’s not worth the investment. If you watch the replays of this incident, the nature of the appeals from the Irish players the second that Thierry touched the ball with his hand and the fact that it ended in a goal, a vitally important goal that held the fate of both teams, warranted the referee to get another look or a second opinion from someone in a video booth.
Finally, I again return to the point that I find it highly unlikely that a player like Thierry Henry would engage in an act of blatant cheating like this if he knew without any fear of contradiction that he would be caught and he would be punished. This of course means that if the players aren’t creating the conditions that require the video replay because they know it’s not worth it, you subsequently don’t have the game interrupted in the way you might fear.
It would surely take some time to achieve this. There would be a pain barrier to go through, a learning curve perhaps. It would certainly be technically challenging and would doubtless have some effect on the game, at least initially, but it has to be worth it in the long run, doesn’t it?
While we’re at it, why not install game clocks so we can all see exactly how long is left to play. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy with the current rules about time keeping, I just want the transparency to understand those additional minutes at Old Trafford in real time and I’d like to feel secure in the knowledge that the same rules are being applied in exactly the same way at Villa Park.
However, every time we have a major incident like this it tends to reignite debate about technological improvements, but we’re no further forward and there’s nothing to suggest an end any time soon. We should give it a fair chance, but the additional 2 linesman being trialled in the Europa League just looks weird to me and I remain to be convinced that the answer to poor refereeing is more referees.
To return specifically to France; they were unable to top out a fairly weak qualifying group and arguably benefited from FIFA’s late decision to seed the play-offs. The scenes after the final whistle in Dublin and, more importantly, the alleged instigation are shameful and then the blatant cheating to seal qualification in Paris. Finally, while I understand that FIFA are considering playing with the seeding procedure for the finals and if they do, it may not favour the French, although I have to admit not investigating the detail just yet, it’s possible that France could be one of the 8 seeded teams in South Africa next year. There’s something very, very wrong with this situation and we should all be concerned with fixing it instead of speculating who might have done the same thing in Henry’s position and how we might feel about it.
I don’t know about you, but I’d take the odd 20 or 30 second delay during a game to ensure we get the right teams competing for the right to call themselves World Champions.
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