Peter Young
13 March 2001
England Football Online
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Comment: The Old Dispute

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Cultural conflict in the game

Raul’s hand ball goal for Real Madrid against Leeds United in last week’s European Champions’ League match raises again a dispute over the Laws of the Game that has plagued international football since its beginnings.  The dispute has persisted because it is rooted in cultural differences. 

Northern European countries, and particularly the United Kingdom, the modern game’s birthplace, traditionally put a high premium on a physically aggressive style of play marked by shoulder charges, hard tackling and rugged combat in general .  Latin American countries have long criticized what they view as the brutal play of Northern European teams.  They regard it as deliberate destruction of skill and artistry in the game.  Shoulder charges were outlawed in effect long ago, and recent changes in the Laws and their interpretation have continued to favour the Latin view.  Tackles involving physical contact now draw heavy sanctions, and crippling or hobbling tackles have all but disappeared from the game.  The result has been a more free-flowing and entertaining game in which artistry is given every opportunity for display.  

On the other hand, in some Latin quarters, guile in violating the Laws and getting away with it is admired and applauded.  This slyness is regarded as another form of artistry in play.  Almost every match is marked by shirt-pulling, concealed fouls of all sorts, and diving and dramatic writhing on the ground in pretended agony to draw free kicks and penalty kicks.  Occasionally we even see what Maradona made infamous in Argentina's World Cup 1986 quarterfinal match against England in Mexico, a ‘Hand of God’ goal.  In Northern European countries, these ploys, far from drawing applause, have long been condemned as cheating.  Even so, presumably on the theory that if you can’t beat them, join them, many Northern European players now themselves routinely employ these methods, and they now threaten to overwhelm the game. 

Both approaches to the game―the one depending on relatively unbridled physical aggression that often hobbled opponents, the other making a virtue of violations of the Laws of the Game―are contrary to fair play, the overriding principle governing the game.  UEFA has acted properly in fining and suspending Raul.  Having already moved to curb physically aggressive play, both FIFA and UEFA must now take immediate action to prevent the elevation of deliberate violations of the Laws into an acceptable tactic in the game.  Only then will we enjoy at the highest levels of the game the beautiful football all of us presumably want to see.

Addendum: UEFA's descent into absurdity
15 March 2001

In an astonishing turnabout, UEFA's Appeals Board yesterday reversed the one-match ban and fine its Control and Disciplinary Body had imposed on Raul for his hand ball goal.  The decision is an appalling piece of illogic and constitutes, in effect, an astounding declaration that UEFA will not deal with violations of the Laws of the Game, no matter how outrageous, if offenders successfully conceal them from the referee.

After noting that use of the hand to score a goal constitutes a deliberate violation of the Laws of the Game, the Appeals Board states that UEFA's regulations authorize post-match disciplinary action if the referee has not seen grossly unsporting conduct and has therefore been unable to make a factual decision.  But it then construes what constitutes inability to make a factual decision in an absurdly restrictive manner and applies the rule of finality for refereeing decisions in a ridiculously expansive fashion.  Since the referee said he had followed the play and considered Raul's goal scored by a header, the Appeals Board held he made a factual decision that must be accepted as final even if wrong.

In other words, UEFA will impose discipline for gross unsporting conduct the referee has missed only if the referee was looking the wrong way entirely, which is highly unlikely as to offences committed in the vicinity of the ball.  If the offending player's effort at deception is successful--if he does in fact deceive a watching referee--UEFA will not impose discipline because the referee's failure to see the offence is presumed to be a factual decision that there was none and that factual decision, albeit the product of deliberate deception, is accorded finality.  The reality, of course, is that the referee made no factual decision because the deception prevented a factual decision.  

The upshot is that UEFA has rendered itself powerless to deal with the most pressing on-the-pitch problem in the game, the epidemic of violations of the Laws of the Game accomplished by deception or concealment.  Following the illogic of the Appeals Board's decision, if a watching referee allows play to continue because he has missed seeing a player deliver a vicious yet surreptitious blow to an opponent's stomach, he has made a factual decision that no foul was committed, and UEFA must accept that decision even if video tape evidence conclusively demonstrates the blow was delivered.  Disciplinary rulings based on this sort of hair-splitting technicality and contradicting the reality evident to millions of television viewers themselves bring discredit to the game.

Finality for the referee's decision is required only if the question is whether a goal should be allowed to stand.  Whether a goal has been scored cannot be determined after the final whistle is blown.  Otherwise, when a disputed goal is decisive, the result of the match would hang in the balance for days and possibly weeks while deliberative bodies weigh the evidence to determine if the match must be replayed.  But this rule of finality should not be extended beyond its rationale, and there is no reason it should control the question of whether a player should be disciplined for a gross violation of the principle of fair play.  

In giving post-match immunity to those players who accomplish by sleight what is forbidden by the Laws, UEFA has done a grave disservice to the game.  UEFA, on reflection, may recognise the bankruptcy of this ill-conceived decision.  Whether or not UEFA does so, FIFA must move with dispatch to make it plain that players who violate the Laws by guile are not beyond the reach of those Laws.