Grey Areas in Fitba
Too many men
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can’t you see?
This is a land of confusion
And so the finale to another Premier League campaign is upon us, the race just 90 minutes from being run. As we know from fable and cliché, the end of the season is the time by which the settling dusts of the season’s controversies will have evened themselves out on the scales of Justice.
For QPR and Bolton, for Spurs, Arsenal and Newcastle, there are still teeth to be gnashed, hair to be pulled, heart rates to spiral and stress balls to be chucked across living rooms, knocking ornaments from the mantelpiece (no parachute payments). And you can bet that before the season’s final curtain falls there will be one last explosion of outrage and indignation, one last ruckus, regardless of what’s gone before – for each year the list of iffy decisions and litany of managerial grievances appears to get longer and longer. And if that ire is an illusion created by Sky’s prompt and pushy microphone thrusters, then it is undeniable that each year the hot and acrid splutterings on the web ratchet up ever closer to a lunacy commensurate with the overall helium-balloon sanity of the game.
That Wigan have avoided their traditional final day escapology and thus some of this snorting, vein popping, wall-punching rage is something of a surprise, not least because they were so cruelly denied a point or three at Stamford Bridge last month by not one but two offside goals. But survive they have – thanks to a series of incredible results rather than luck evening itself out.
Nevertheless – and despite what the reckoners reckon – there are certainly teams across all divisions nursing legitimate complaints that cannot simply be appeased with platitudes about the sum of decisions affecting them attaining some sort of Taoist balance. They’ve got the rough end of the stick, and there’s no smooth end to take the rough with. It might be just as much of a dog-eared and trite-sounding cliché to say this – which is not to say it’s any less apposite for that – but these decisions change the course of seasons, of careers, of entire lives. They matter. Perhaps, then, it is time for football to think about, y’know, maybe helping its officials with disambiguated rules and modern technology, and not just for the line decision that hurt Tottenham so badly at Wembley. The stakes are ever higher. Magnanimity is in short supply. Someone is going to flip.
* * *
Modern football: a great hiss and rumble and throb of barely stifled fury, of bottlenecked fervour, of displaced political anger trained on the poor old bastard in the black. With so much money (and personal self-worth) invested in an archaically administered and intrinsically chaotic enterprise, one in which the bounce of the ball and the interpretations of one inherently limited man and his two (or four) confreres determine the outcome – hardly the place for shoving half-a-billion quid, you’d imagine – it becomes more and more plausible (certainly if Twitter is an accurate barometer of the zeitgeist) that these overworked officials will one day soon be targeted by an overheated, deranged supporter. After all, football has already sparked at least one war elsewhere in the world.
This is not scaremongering. It is the simple recognition of a possible outcome borne of the confluence of financial and passional forces coursing through each and every match and slowly warming up football’s bubbling pot. Possible, not inevitable.
It is this conflict, this contradiction between the ever higher stakes and emotional investment on the one hand, and, on the other, the ambiguity and uncertainty that pervade the game, that effectively fans the flames of footballing frustration and foments the fans’ fury. I mean, the heavy-hitters in other multibillion pound industries at least have the good sense to get governments onside (or offside, but passive) and in their pockets, thus ensuring that their investments are protected from the vicissitudes of the markets. And yet football – notwithstanding the Trades Descriptions Act-challenging expansion of the “Champions” League in 1992 – has the destiny of its protagonists at the mercy of referees’ eminently human limitations, our inescapably restricted capacity to perceive and process a flux of sensory data, regardless of best intentions and general competence.
As for those most affected by the decisions, the fact that so much of football derives from the interpretation of perpetually tweaked laws, it’s inevitable that one-eyed, partial viewpoints will hold sway (partial in the sense of limited rather than biased). Check more or less any after-match interview and you’ll find both coaches holding steadfast to vehement and diametrically opposed positions, views that they would defend unto the grave: “It’s a clear penalty”. “Bit soft, Geoff”. “Definite red card”. “I think he played the ball”.
Even among a punditariat paid to deliver neutral verdicts and afforded multiple TV replays from innumerable angles and at all speeds to do so, there’s rarely consensus as to the ‘facts’ of what happened – all of which is amply expressed in the commonplace idioms of punditry: “I’ve seen ‘em given”; “Not for me, Geoff”; “Six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other”; “If that’d been outside the area…”
Of course, the notion that there is an objectively perceivable reality, any objectivity, is extremely dubious – Nietzsche’s “perspectivism” is precisely this idea that our unconscious investment in reality, our desire, affects perceptions of that ‘same’ reality (and this includes a football referee before a large crowd with an assessor in the stand). But surely football’s Laws can clarify matters, right? In theory, yes. In practice, you have all this dissent and discombobulated disputation (among the crowd, mainly, since the modern player is increasingly cocooned from it all by their defence budget pay packets).
Now, I’m no expert, and nor do I profess to be, but then neither are the majority of the crowd. Sport is not nuclear physics. Or rugby union. You’re not supposed to need to be an expert in order to appreciate it, to get it. What’s going on (or off) – the ‘meaning’ – should be fairly transparent at all times. (Of course, what rugby lacks in clarity, it makes up for in discipline, countervailing its haziness through a strict behavioural code, unlike football in which barely a decision is made without being greeted by a rasped “fuck off!”). But the Laws contain so much vagueness – some of which was shoehorned into the game so as to produce a more ‘entertaining’ spectacle rather than the old-fashioned notion of a just reward for honest endeavour – that it is little surprise there’s barely any consensus among pundits or any magnanimity from coaches when asked to comment on the game (be that in the heat of the moment or at a press conference a week later).
* * *
That football is a vast grey area and does little to help itself is evident if we run through a few of the principal bones of contention.
First, Law 12. A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits the offences of kicking, tripping or striking an opponent (or attempting to do so), or jumping, charging, pushing or tackling said opponent “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force”. Considered by the referee. Instantly, the pundits will be looking for “consistency” in application (the managers, for favour, even though they plead for that consistency). It goes without saying that they’ve more chance of plaiting snot.
Indeed, the whole question of “excessive force” is notoriously difficult to interpret: does that include when a player wins – or feathers – the ball on the way into a tackle, and yet makes sure he ‘clears out’ the opponent at the latter part of the action (often unnecessary, often pleasurable, and usually either intimidatory or vengeful)?
Then there’s the problem of actually having to perceive the initial point of contact in these comings-together, especially in the penalty box: the multiple surfaces and flailing, entangled appendages render the referee’s task akin to watching two felled trees colliding and trying to work out which branch touched which first. Cue the slo-mo. No, the other one. No, the first, but slower…
Direct free kicks are also given for holding or spitting at an opponent (one endemic, the other taboo), or if a player “handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)”. The interpretation of this last rule seems to have become draconian to the point of requiring arm amputation. The penalty and yellow card against Bayern Munich’s David Alaba in the Champions League semi-final second leg in Madrid was nothing short of insane, scandalously depriving him of a ‘home’ final in club football’s biggest game. And anyway, while we’re contemplating our last-day relegation or eleventh-hour failure to make the Champions League (leading to the break-up of a promising group), we might ask: where, precisely, does the chest end and the arm begin? “Can you take this magic marker and draw on the volunteer, please?” Do we need ultra-motion to see the compression of the ball and whether a wee bit of leather stroked the arm of the defender?
Then there’s offside, “not an offence in itself,” but worthy of a free kick “if, at the moment the ball touches, or is played by one of his team, [a player] is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by: interfering with play or; interfering with an opponent, or; gaining an advantage by being in that position”. In the opinion of the referee… It is surely not helpful that a defender has to base his actions on second-guessing the ref: does he think this is second phase? And as for being level, yes, we know that it means any part of the body with which a goal can be scored, but is this actually perceivable by the officials? Does it include hair, for instance?
Let us not even bother with obstruction [bête noir alert], particularly defenders shepherding out the ball for a goal kick, shielding it without actually being able to reach it. The foregoing is enough to illustrate how the cash-bloated football edifice is still run according to antiquated Victorian regulations, and how the grey men in Zurich and Nyon, the bureaucrats of FIFA and UEFA, are happy for these grey areas to persist. “Forget the Ferrari, Wilhelm, let’s take my horse and cart”.
Of course, it all fans the fans’ outrage. By confusing respect for the figure of authority with respect for authority per se, by venerating the flesh-and-blood error machines with their sluggish perceptual-cognitive apparatus, their eyes-in-the-front-of-the-head limitations, FIFA is implicitly advocating a kind of wilful blindness and submission to the capricious, circumscribed judgement of He whose authority ought not be questioned. Little wonder players in Spain (in particular) are constantly surrounding and haranguing the referee. Thus, too, Mourinho’s habitually paranoid outbursts about referees and favouritism, his memory of their misdemeanours, his oblique attempts to pressurise the árbitro – a job for masochists and the certifiable. Less a case of arbitration than of being arbitrary. Influencing the árbitro macht frei.
What’s more, the Luddite refusal to introduce technology on the basis that it’s not foolproof is just plain bizarre. If the overriding commercial rationale of the sport in Zurich is to be able to punt it at ever greater cost to TV – the very means to demonstrate that justice has not been served (although not in all cases, of course) – then not having that selfsame technology avail the course of justice is plain perverse.
If technology is going to be introduced to assist more than just line decisions, then we should be aware that absolute answers in all cases aren’t needed and should not be the criterion applied to its implementation or otherwise. We don’t need perfect, just better.
Sepp Blatter has previously stated that the game’s administration needs to be the same at the grass roots as at the top level, but it is patently not the same game at park level. OK, the rules are identical and the players may invest just as much of their hopes and dreams in the outcome, but the stakes are objectively, inarguably lower. And when the fate of a club depends on a snap decision here or there, then so too does the wellbeing of the community around it. Thus it would only seem a matter of time before the Premier League witnesses its first instance of an official being attacked or worse for costing a team a title, a Champions League position, a place in the elite.
Yes, football’s truly a land of confusion. No, there’s not much love to go round. But what can be done? Me, I’m going to swallow 100mg of Phlegmatorol and acquiesce in the lunacy.
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