Thursday, 19 November 2009

How Much Longer, Sepp?

Oh, for goodness’ sake, FIFA. You too, UEFA. You saw what happened tonight – just like everyone else did. Do you really think there’s going to be a single newspaper, television show, football fan or impressionable young child out there who thinks that tonight’s result was a fair one? It’s not like they won’t be talking about it – this was no meaningless kick-about, nor even a group match or league game where one unfair decision that turns a win into a defeat can be moaned about and written about and debated over – but forgotten in a few short days’ time.

This was a knockout match – and not just any old knockout match. Extra time in the second leg of a play-off tie, the winner of which would be the final European nation to qualify for the World Cup. The World Cup, guys. As the BBC have said in their match report tonight (and doubtless most back pages will in the morning), it’s hard to imagine it being more heartbreaking – or coming at a more devastating moment.

Tonight France played Ireland at the Stade de France with a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg in Dublin. Ireland took the lead in the first half through Robbie Keane, levelling the score on aggregate and, an hour or so later, sending the tie to extra time. It was, by all accounts, certainly no more than Ireland deserved.

It could be argued that Ireland hung on and defended their slender advantage for most of the second half while France created more chances – but that excuses nothing of the circumstances of France’s victory.

The ball floated into the box from midfield from a free kick, falling just in front of the (probably offside) Thierry Henry, who clearly used his hand to stop the ball going out of play – knocking it into a position where he could pass across the face of goal to the arriving boot of William Gallas, who scored. It was a goal – but, clearly, it shouldn’t have been.

Naturally the Irish players and fans are devastated, as losing teams so often are; especially when the manner of the defeat is cruel and seemingly unfair. But I wonder if the stakes have ever been much higher? There aren’t many comparable situations. One act of flagrant cheating from a highly-regarded player (and while it is a shame to see Henry do it, it’s certainly not his first offence) here means the difference between Ireland going to the World Cup or not. The World Cup – the biggest, most significant global sporting event of them all, which comes round only once every four years; only the Olympic Games can dream of coming close, and even then I would argue that its level of cultural impact and ability to unite and simply matter to the sheer number of people the World Cup does is way, way off.

One only has to look at the way London’s Algerian population is celebrating their nation’s play-off victory over Egypt tonight to get a glimpse into what qualification means to people – especially those from small countries. Take a look at Trafalgar Square tonight and you’d think Algeria had won the whole competition. I’d imagine there are fair few pubs in Dublin whose inhabitants are wondering whether they’ll ever bother watching football again.

The impact failure to qualify for the second consecutive World Cup finals – and this time through no real fault of their own – will have on Irish football, particularly financially, should not be underestimated. In a country where football has to compete with rugby and hugely popular indigenous sports like Gaelic football and hurling, whose domestic league is of a relatively low standard and hence whose players almost all ply their trade in the UK (oh and how French coach Raymond Domenech’s decision to spitefully label the Republic’s first team as “England B” was almost made to look so stupid), missing out on qualification in such miserable fashion is a real blow.

It is said that the most lucrative single match in football is the English Football League Championship play-off final, the prize for the victor being a place in the Premier League – and hence a share of the money Sky and numerous international broadcasters pay to show matches around the world. This figure is hard to pin down, but it is usually quoted as being around £35 million. Clearly, this would make an enormous amount of difference to almost any club in the Football League (Notts County aside, maybe) – and so were this Wembley clash to be decided on an obvious handball offence? The calls for a replay, for lawsuits, for compensation, would be deafening. Particularly if Neil Warnock happened to be one of the coaches.

And yet this is even bigger. It matters to a whole country – and also to plenty of people in Britain and the global Irish diaspora – not just the fans of a single club. As someone with around 25% Irish heritage (the rest is Scottish), I was looking forward to having some blood connection to next year’s tournament.

So come on, FIFA, UEFA, chaps. You surely won’t get many more high-profile incidents than this as incentive: bring in the bloody technology.

It exists! It exists in lots and lots of other sports – I can only assume Blatter, Warner, Platini et al haven’t watched any tennis, motor racing or cricket in the last five to ten years, such is their apparent obliviousness to the likes of HawkEye. It doesn’t even have to be HawkEye – if anything football moves too fast to really benefit from the sort of detailed analysis the system offers. The only technology football needs is already there. You see all those cameras around the stadium, Sepp? They’re filming everything – from all the best angles and, nowadays, in super-hi-def, super-slo-mo replay-o-vision. Would referring to this handy multi-angle feed cause the game to slow down or stop for too long? Not at all – all that is needed is an official sat at the side of the pitch watching the exact same feed as everyone else. The referee needs only to glance over to him – he either nods or shakes his head: done. Tonight’s incident could have been decided in a quarter of a second, as indeed it was by everyone watching on TV. Goal disallowed – the French would barely have started celebrating.

It’s slightly annoying to be moaning about FIFA again this week, but it leaves me feeling incredulous when things like this keep happening, at the highest level, and those at the top remain recalcitrant. Ironically, even UEFA’s half-arsed ‘goal-line officials’ would have spotted Henry’s handball tonight.

I love the modern game, but remain most baffled that while the football authorities have embraced everything they can to make football as up-to-date and future-ready as is possible – selling broadcast rights, attracting huge tournament sponsorships, building glittering new stadiums, supporting grassroots projects and creating some dazzling youth training systems around the developing world – they’ve yet to embrace something as simple and as staggeringly obvious as video technology.

It’s got to come in soon, hasn’t it? Will it take a team winning the World Cup Final with an illegal goal or a blatant dive to win a penalty for them to finally realise? Maybe it’ll happen in 2010. A big part of me hopes it’s against France, too – and not just the Irish quarter.

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