So much beauty out there

November 19, 2009

La Perfide France

The subject of cheating is rarely far from the agenda in the hyperbole-ridden world of professional sport and its media. Thierry Henry’s handball that allowed France to score the winning goal against the Republic of Ireland in their World Cup eliminator has arrived only just in time to shift the dive by his compatriot David Ngog that won Liverpool a penalty and a point against Birmingham.

The obvious lesson here is that the French as a nation cannot be trusted and probably should be banned from sport altogether, perhaps restricted to playing petanque in town squares in order to look picturesque for the tourists.
The instant response to any injustice of the sort witnessed yesterday when Ireland were cruelly eliminated is almost invariably that “something must be done”. The Irish justice minister (perhaps sporting justice also comes under his remit) has demanded a replay, as has the FAI. The Irish assistant coach Liam Brady has, with impressive understatement, indicated that the team would be “open” to a replay. Steve Bruce has called for the introduction of video technology to be introduced for controversial decisions. Others have called for various draconian penalties against Henry himself.

Irish anger is particularly intense as many argue that the decision to allow the goal was part of a general desire from FIFA to have France with it’s big TV market and superstar players in the World Cup rather than unfashionable Ireland – an argument that was first made when FIFA belatedly announced that the playoffs would be seeded, favouring glamorous teams like France and Portugal and working against relative minnows like Bosnia and Ireland. It seems certain that FIFA would prefer for France to qualify, but the referee’s impartiality had been evident during the game (particularly when denying France a possible penalty shortly before the goal) so the argument that the game itself was fixed doesn’t hold water.

While the anger and disappointment of the Irish is understandable, their hopes for a replay are surely unjustifiable. Every game of football will feature some aspect of cheating ranging from deliberate fouls to simulation to blocking. It is now common practice for a defending team to try and stop a threatening attack by a foul in midfield where the free kick presents little threat. This is clearly cheating but occurs several times a game. Any of these incidents could materially alter the result, and inevitably not all will be spotted and punished by the ref. Thus, either every game is to be replayed or some panel of experts would have to rule on each game trying to rule out what result would have happened without all the infringements. Both are manifestly unworkable. It’s horrible for the loser, but the result at the final whistle has to be final or we descend into farce.

What could be done is for video evidence to be used after games to identify unsportsmanlike behaviour of any sort, with penalties for the individuals concerned. This mechanism already exists in part for incidents not witnessed by the match officials but FIFA has consistently argued that to allow a retrospective panel to decide a referee made the wrong decision and punish appropriately would undermine the referee’s authority. I think this view is fundamentally misguided. Of course referees will make mistakes, it’s inherent in human nature and is particularly likely to happen when the likelihood of being punished for deceiving the referee is so slim, as now. When organisations have tried to clamp down on it, such as UEFA’s attempt to ban Eduardo for diving against Celtic, those actions seemed arbitrary and tokenistic.

I’d like to see an established set of penalties for various offences that are not witnessed by the referees that can be automatically imposed subsequently, for example, 3 games of diving, deliberate handball, 2 games for exaggerating contact or feigning injury in order to obtain an advantage (this is obviously very hard to judge but there are instances when someone is pushed in the chest say and goes down clutching their face) and so on. Violent incidents that were not seen or not adequately punished by the ref would have to be dealt with on their individual merits given the range of severity of offence. It could be argued that these punishments are disproportionate to the sanctions that would have been imposed had they been spotted during a game – where a yellow card is standard for diving and deliberate handball but this can partially offset any in game advantage obtained through cheating.

By this method then hopefully cheating will be deterred as the overall utility of it is reduced. But it won’t and can’t be eliminated entirely. And miserable though it is for the team who are unfairly denied their just desserts, the spice that such injustices add to sport is one of the reasons it is so compelling.

UPDATE, 2th NOVEMBER

The definitive word on the Henry incident by Islington cultural critic (and Arsenal fan) Hartley Sebag-ffiennes

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