Monday, 7 September 2009

A Week of Punishment

It’s been, to say the least, a big week for punishments being handed out by the football authorities. It’s very tempting to take up a contrary position to executive decisions and rant about how the faceless and seemingly disconnected powers-that-be hand down apparently arbitrary penalties based on whatever disciplinary issue happens to be in focus at the time, but surely the people running the game have some idea what they’re doing, don’t they?

I suppose what I mean by ‘in focus’ is whatever issue happens to be in the headlines – FIFA, UEFA, the FA et al are not, clearly, immune to the ideological whims of the football press and seem often to act only when an incident hits the back pages and is scrutinised by the television networks. The more of a fuss made by pundits, managers, referees and, to a much smaller degree, the fans, on an issue, the more swiftly (and harshly) the authorities seem to act.

The first of this past week’s big disciplinary stories is a prime example of this, I think. It’s clear to most who saw the incident in the Arsenal v Celtic Champions League qualifier two weeks ago that Arsenal forward Eduardo dived to win a penalty as keeper Artur Boruc came to collect the ball at his feet – what is unclear is the thought process, and indeed the political process, that went on at UEFA surrounding their response. The overwhelming reaction was one of knee-jerk example-making and chaos.

Referee Mejuto Gonzalez gave the penalty, which was the wrong call – but his reading of the game nonetheless – when the dive, had he or any of his assistants spotted it, would have warranted a yellow card for simulation. Eduardo’s punishment, handed out extraordinarily quickly, it seems, was to be a two-game ban – essentially that for a straight red-card offence. UEFA have, then, opened a few predictable cans of worms.

The first is the issue of consistency. Are they now going to hand out retrospective two-match bans for every issue of diving they come across? Is simulation now a straight red if the referee sees it? Does this apply to feigning injury or just diving? Will it still be applied if it happens outside the penalty area? This is chaos – rewriting the rules in one swift, ill-defined move as a result of a bit of hysterical press hoo-ha. More troubling is the fact that they seem to be taking power out of the referee’s hands – if UEFA (and presumably FIFA, on the international stage) is to retrospectively analyse every match for disciplinary infringements, why have a referee at all?

Which brings me to the second can of worms – which, admittedly, has already been open and squiggling for quite some time: video technology. Laughably, it seems that UEFA in particular are doing anything they can to avoid introducing technology in the Champions League, while it remains a bit of a no-brainer to fans, managers and players alike – hence the introduction of a “fifth official” for Europa League matches whose job it is to watch the penalty area. Why, then, if we are to strip the referee of his executive decision-making ability, have another fallible human watching when there are already several cameras covering every inch of the pitch? Is it really just money? I know plenty of people who’d have more time for watching live football if they knew they were going to get a fair outcome – and probably wouldn’t mind waiting the two or three seconds it would take a video referee to make judgements in contentious situations.

I’m in no way saying that making moves to stamp out diving is a bad thing. It was disappointing to see Eduardo go down like that, mostly because he’s always seemed to be an honest player – but this only emphasises that the problem is genuinely part of the game nowadays, and unless proper, sensible rules can be put in place from the top of the game to the bottom (which I’m not sure it can), it should be accepted that it’s always going to be around.

See how easy it is to rant?

This one might be harder to avoid. After the Eduardo noise had just started to die down came FIFA’s announcement that Chelsea were to be banned from signing new players for two transfer windows – meaning no new faces at Stamford Bridge until January 2011. Even as I read this back now it seems unbelievable, and it feels more and more likely that the Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal will see it reduced to just the one window, but still – where do FIFA get these punishments from?

The first thought I had was, for various reasons, the effect this would have on Chelsea. Enforcing a serious setback on a club’s development for almost two seasons felt similar to Juventus’ punishment for match-fixing in 2006, when they were relegated to Serie B for a season (OK, so I was possibly overreacting) but it still confuses me as to the scale on which certain crimes fall for the governing bodies of football.

It was a Chelsea statement that described the two-window ban as “arbitrary”, and it’s hard to see it as anything else. Diving = a yellow card or a two-match ban if the referee doesn’t see it. Systemic corruption, referee-bribing, match-fixing = relegation and points deducted. “Inducing” a teenager to break his contract – a two-window transfer ban. Is this really written down anywhere? And if so, why are we looking at isolated incidents, plucked out almost at random? As BBC blogger Phil McNulty put it, if FIFA think this only happens at Chelsea then they are naïve in the extreme.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the practice of stealing youth players from small and vulnerable clubs should be allowed (I would probably support a ban on the transfer of players under 18, in fact), but that only consistency will make any sense of this particular cruel punishment in the long run – it would be nice to be able to imagine the authorities in charge of one of the biggest global industries not looking like a bunch of reactionary headless chickens.

The final disciplinary issue that’s got me going, that’s only just come to light tonight, involves the domestic game, and the 9-month ban handed to Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny for failing a drugs test. For once, this at first seemed fair. Kenny did test positive and performance-enhancing drugs should be dealt with harshly, of course – but in this case it seems that Kenny took the banned substance, ephedrine, accidentally, in an over-the-counter cough remedy. What seems crazy to me is that the FA disciplinary committee have accepted that it was an accident, but handed the player the nine-month ban anyway. This will, it seems, “send out a message” to footballers to watch what they’re taking. No leniency shown, no first warning. Just a whole season on the sidelines for a simple mistake.

Hopefully great performances from England and Scotland on Wednesday night can lift the mood, for me at least. At the moment there’s a bit of a rough taste in my mouth.

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