Get Smart!

In this shorter than usual post, I’ll be looking at a topical talking point which has been thrown up by this week’s Champions League matches, specifically those involving English clubs.

 
The issue in question is (in case you hadn’t already guessed) that of the professional foul, the one denying a clear, goal-scoring opportunity, which produces a red card and, if the offence occurs within the penalty area, a penalty kick too.

 
Both games involving English teams produced incidents which saw the home teams (Manchester City and Arsenal), reduced to ten men, whilst simultanaeously conceding a penalty. The subsequent clamour from pundits and the media, about the “unfairness” of the punishment has been all but deafening. But why, and why now?

 
The rules have been enforced in this way, for almost as long as I can remember, the best part of the last twenty years certainly, so how can anybody claim that it is unfair? Granted, the award of a penalty and a red card may be harsh, but unfair? I think not. Talk of a double punishment may also hold some water, however there is a reason for this – namely to stop these kinds of fouls from occuring; to eradicate them from the game, through fear of the consequences.

 
The last man/red card rule was thought up for precisely this reason; to stop defenders and/or goalkeepers from cynically taking out the attacking player, with the intention of preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity, a la Schumacher on Battiston for example. Before its introduction, these type of “professional fouls” were all too common in the game. Needless to say, the introduction and enforcement of the, now well understood, rule has not rid the game of these challenges completely, but it has significantly limited them in number, and that can only be a good thing.

 
The desperate, last ditch challenge is nearly always a dangerous one, often a reckless lunge. It’s very rare that one of these lunges is successful, and, even if the defender gets a slight touch on the ball, they can result in serious injury – Wes Brown on Gaston Ramirez being a recent example of this.

 
These desperate challenges need to be removed from the game, defenders and goalkeepers need to re-evaluate their approaches to these one on one situations. Jockey the forward, show him down the side you want him to go down, stay on your feet, don’t throw youself at the forward’s feet, don’t lunge in, and (in a defender’s case) if all else fails, trust your goalkeeper to make the save.

 
Referees have this week been accused of “ruining the game as a spectacle”, by pundits and disgruntled managers alike. Not normally one to defend referees too much, I’d have to completely disagree with this perceived wisdom. The referees in both games simply applied the laws of the game as they are, and they were one hundred per cent right on both incidents. Both De Michelis and Szczseny attempted desperate challenges, when very unlikely to win the ball; both took the respective forwards out, both denied clear goal-scoring opportunities. Unfair? Not a chance.

 
If you want to accuse somebody of “ruining the game”, the only people you can look at are the players that made those ill-advised challenges. Simply put, they should’ve known better. It’s the culture of the sport, particularly in England, to blame referees and managers, absolving players (in the most part) of all reponsibility, in order to progress, the balance needs to be redressed somewhat.

 
When the referee applies the laws of the game objectively and correctly, he is in fact doing the opposite of ruining the game. If more referees, particularly in England (Mr. Webb) applied the rules in such a way, rather than refereeing context (effectively making a mockery of the game), then football would be a lot better.

 
Should the rule be changed? Well, if it was changed, the number of Wes Brown style challenges would surely increase, along with the number of likely injuries. Forwards would get even less protection than they have now, the quality of football would likely diminish, along with the number of goals scored.

 
The only way a change might work would be to award a penalty goal (similar to a penalty try in rugby), to the attacking team in a situation where a goal-scoring opportunity has been denied, and give the defender a yellow card. The severity of this punishment might also act as deterrent enough, however I’m fairly certain most football fans wouldn’t really want to go down that route.

 
In conclusion then, while the rule may anger and upset some, it is understood and acknowledged by all. That being the case, and having been so for twenty odd years, it’s not the rule that needs to change, rather the players’ approach to dealing with desperate one on one situations. As Michael Ballack says “The player knows if he touches him, it’s a red card. He must be smarter.”

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