Monday, 31 August 2009

Off With 'is Eduardo! Sound the Bans for Platini's Rule of Terror

After rugby’s soul-searching and swingeing response to the Harlequins cheating scandal, football’s authorities seem to be desperate for some attention. Barely a weekend goes by without a dubious penalty appeal in the Premiership – given, denied, dived – yet UEFA President Michel Platini has chosen this moment to make his dash for the soiled molehill that represents football’s moral high ground.

As overreactions go, Eduardo is still some way behind the elite.

Most impressive of all, Platini appeals to parks football while trialling a system that draws on the only sporting theatre more overblown than Europe’s – America. Here is why the UEFA President is wrong.

A New Dope

Diving, exaggerating, penalty-winning, define it how you will, has been around as long as any living pundit can remember. The fake blood scandal was a new gash in rugby’s credibility and had to be cauterized immediately to preserve the spirit and reputation of the game. The career-threatening bans handed down to Dean Richards and others were a fitting and effective response to a newly discovered ruse.

If football wants to put its house belatedly in order, a more organic approach is called for.

Footballing Ethics

Football has never enjoyed the reputation for probity enjoyed by rugby union even after recent events. It is telling that the rugby world has acted instantly to punish the perpetrators even though Harlequins failed to overturn the deficit on Leinster after Tom Williams was led dripping from the field.

It is hard to imagine the same eruption of bitter accusations had Eduardo failed to convert the penalty on Wednesday night.

In football such joke shop dramatics as Emmanuel Eboue’s feigned collision with the invisible obstacle that was not Patrice Evra’s foot merit only a yellow card. As spectators can tell, the punishment is more in pricking one of the few sources of shame still felt by modern footballers than in the statutory sanction.

To say that Eduardo must suffer a ban equivalent to a violent conduct charge, simply because the referee adjudged in his favour is a breakdown in logic.

If Eduardo suffers, so too must Eboue.

Cruel Intentions

Did Eduardo actually appeal for a penalty after his limp collapse? It was noticeable that although his arms went up as Artur Boruc slid in to graze his heel, by the time he came to rest his arms were lowered, his mouth empty of plaintive cries and his concerned look back was almost bashful. He had certainly anticipated contact and acted to maximise its effects, but did not demand a penalty.

Two seconds more without a whistle and we might have seen the incident in an entirely different light. As it is, show me a player who tells the referee to take back any favourable decision, let alone a penalty.

Perhaps we stalwart Englishmen should turn our eyes closer to home? Wayne Rooney of all people fell to his knees before making contact with Manuel Almunia’s rashly outstretched arms on Saturday – surely knowing full well that his decisive touch had already sent the ball hurtling into the advertising hoardings on the full.

Unlike Eduardo he performed an adroit turn while sliding on his knees to launch an appeal whose ferocity would have made Shane Warne proud. Rooney’s penalty was far more pivotal than Eduardo’s, as a discomposed Diaby doubled it within minutes by nodding into his own net.

Silly Season

If UEFA or Platini would have players punished for one brand of deceit, where do they call a halt? What about players who shrug their shoulders in pantomime faux-innocence after committing assault on a ball-carrier? Players who know they have not taken the ball in a challenge, but protest to the contrary? Darren Fletcher’s penalty-box slide to upend Arshavin did not touch the ball until it reached the Manchester United midfielder’s arms, yet he was still unwilling to admit it even after seeing that the replay revealed all.

What of all the automatic appeals for corners and throw-ins from players who know precisely who touched the ball last? Players who routinely react to a limp wrist in the chest as to an elbow to the face? Perhaps Ferguson’s undetected foot grazed a water bottle in a touchline foray without the eagle-eyed intervention of fourth official Jeff Probyn? Platini should conduct a proper review before sounding off, or football risks bridging the gap between silly season and panto time.

Wrong Answer

Let us suppose, for a moment, that change is needed and that Platini must start somewhere; perhaps “simulation” is the most unsightly and demeaning of offences, especially in the light of slow-motion replays. However, his solution is counterintuitive. It is the cameras that have laid bare some of the most controversial incidents, yet he would involve more touchline officials to watch the goal-line and penalty area.

Platini asserts that technology is contrary to the spirit and practicalities of the game as played in local parks – Hackney Marshes seems to be the media-designated heart of the English game – but such contests rarely have two impartial assistants, let alone four.

In any case, points of view can confuse as much as enlighten – well-placed assistants frequently flag phantom fouls or fail to act, as if unsure of their authority. The goal itself is also bound to obscure these new officials’ view of the entire penalty box.

A Just Sport?

The “justice” demanded by so many is at best a fickle and erratic one. There are no level scales of sporting justice and never have been – the ancient Olympics had their own cheats and it is inevitable that the most cunning and practised in deception are the least likely to be caught.

A cheat’s worst punishment is to be frozen out by reputation, as Cristiano Ronaldo once was, forcing them to clean up their act. How many decisions will Eduardo lose out on in the wake of one minor misjudgement?

Radical Retribution

However, one part of me would like to see UEFA go the whole hog. Platini himself could spend 40 hours a week ordering swingeing and arbitrary bans for a whole range of offences, from swearing at the referee to claiming throw-ins, shirt-pulling to late tackles, violent conduct to pathetic writhing.

He would be a law unto himself, guardian and avenger of the mismonickered “beautiful game”, and players would flee to their utmost moral sanctums in the face of football’s own Old Testament God. They would scarcely dare to look at the referee, aka “Sir”; apologise after fouls; wave their arms to indicate that they did not take the ball cleanly; offer each other the ball at throw-ins and sign autographs before taking corners.

Let Platini rule with a rod of iron. Let terror reign.

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