The (not so) Beautiful Game

It is not too often that a player gets a standing ovation for being sent off but it happened last week in the FFA Cup. It seems a little incongruous but it reflects the win at all costs attitude of professional football; one might say professional sport in general, with the exception of golf, a sport that prides itself on honesty and sportsmanship.

For years FIFA have forced teams to display a ‘Fair Play’ flag before the match starts, but have done precious little else to support the ideology. Generally speaking, players and coaches go along with the philosophy of Fair Play as long as it does not affect the result of the game. Players will kick the ball out of play when an opponent gets injured and the other team will return the compliment by giving the ball back from the resultant throw-in, usually accompanied by applause from the fans.

If a player gets cut during the game or has a nose bleed he/she has to leave the field, often against the player’s wishes and cannot return until the bleeding has stopped.  A replacement player is not allowed to enter the field during that time. When a player has to leave the field after being unfairly injured by an opponent, who may receive a yellow card for the offence, a replacement player is not allowed to enter the field, but the guilty player is allowed to play on giving his/her team a numerical advantage. A replacement player could be allowed to enter the field in both situations if FIFA were serious about Fair Play.

The laws of the game really fail the offended team when players are deliberately ‘taken out’ of play if there is a possibility or a real chance they might score a goal. This usually happens outside the penalty area because the offending team want to stop a promising attack and they know the offended team will only be rewarded with a free kick; which they are not allowed to take until the defending team are organised and have the best chance of preventing a goal from being scored.  Commentators often say,” That was a good decision” (to take out the player), or, “He’s taken one for the team”, inferring that what the player did is something the player should be proud of. The laws of the game have been changed to recognise the seriousness of the offence and a player who deliberately takes an opponent out will be sent off, but that does nothing for the team that is offended against.  What the offended team wants and should have is the chance to score and the laws of the game need to be changed to allow it.  If that happens it will deter players from ‘taking out opponents’ quite so readily and the game will be ‘fairer’ in the way it is played.

‘Taking players out’ is not new to the game. In the 1970’s a gentleman, former player, manager, commentator and TV personality, Jimmy Hill, suggested a ‘2nd Penalty’ should be awarded when the offence is committed outside the penalty area. He suggested the game should restart with a free shot at goal from the edge of the penalty area, regardless of where the offence took place on the field, because that would be ‘fairer’ to the offended team. At the time I thought his suggestion made a lot of sense and I still do, because I actually believe in ‘Fair Play’. (In 1999 I wrote to the AFC Technical Committee about this and did not even receive an acknowledgement).

Most people are brought up to behave in a disciplined way and given values to guide their behaviour; not to cheat or be dishonest and to have a sense of fair play. When children object to rules or about a punishment they will say, “That’s not fair’, because they have a sense of what is fair according to the seriousness of the offence and the circumstances. I do not think FIFA have the balance between the seriousness of the offence and the ‘fairness’ of the punishment. I am not suggesting that the punishment be made more severe, I am suggesting the offended team should be compensated, with a chance to score. In society offenders are punished for breaking the laws and victims of unacceptable behaviour are often awarded compensation. I think that principle should be applied in football when the punishment for an offence does nothing for the team offended against.

We all know why a player gets a standing ovation on his way to the dressing room after ‘taking out an opponent’ in the final minutes of the game, but what does it do for your sense of ‘fair play’ and what does it do to the image of the beautiful game?

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