Belgium and Saudi Arabia – the friendly farce continues

9 September 2014

Liege: Belgium 2 – Australia 0
London: Saudi Arabia 2 – Australia 3

Sometimes it makes you really wonder, why do we play these so-called “friendlies”? After a period of 10 months without a win under Ange Postecoglou, this morning’s match against Saudi Arabia was seen as one that a result must count. Ange’s one and only win came in his very first game – against Costa Rica late last year. Since then it’s been a succession of tough opponents against his mostly experimental teams. Fans have been patient.

Finally a win comes, and the stark reality is that if not for “the result”, there’s little to get excited about the game. Australia scored two goals in the first 5 minutes that any Saudi fan would label “soft” – just as we’re wont to do with most of our goals conceded. The goal first came from a break and was scrambled in at close range by Tim Cahill while the Mile Jedinak headed the second off a set piece thanks to some Saudi non-defending. Even the third goal, to restore a two goal cushion, came from a poorly defended set piece.

The Saudis could quite easily think that if not for the first 5 minutes, they won the game 2-1. The truth is Australia dominated much of the first half, even without troubling the goal-keeper that often. Problem is that with that 2-goal buffer, the natural tendency is to take fewer risks anyway, so containment became the scenario. To properly evaluate and test the team, it would have been much preferable had the score stayed 0-0 a bit longer.

In contrast to the first half, the second half was both rubbish and a showcase of when the farcical nature of these “farclies” become even more evident. The cavalcade of substitutions – by both teams – rendered the match process as almost entirely pointless. Giving players some experience is one thing; giving the team a competitive match another. The commentators even talk of a non-competitive environment when it comes refereeing decisions – that they’d be stricter if the match was a “competitive” one. How some matches will prepare Australia for the Asian Cup is a mystery. Quite simply, it wasn’t a match in any recognised form experienced at a competitive level.

This was the second farclie in 5 days, with the other against Belgium. That was a 2-0 loss in which Belgium’s class was simply too good and their defence easily contained Australia’s attack forays. Even though a little bit of slopping defending contributed to the goals, it quite easily could have been more, so a fair result.

The ever present issue – as highlighted in both games – is the defence. Australia has conceded at least two goals in their last 5 matches, and no clean sheets since Costa Rica. Plenty of new players given starts so some of this can be forgiven in these two matches. Of the new players that were given a good run, Massimo Luongo was the clear standout in midfield with his “little maestro” qualities. He was good against Ecuador before the World Cup and it was a big surprise he went unused during the Cup.

Both games also saw controversial refereeing decisions. Chris Herd’s high boot in the opening minutes nailed a Belgium player in the stomach in which no card was given. In a “competitive” match, it’s a red. In a farclie, we don’t want to make it more farcical by rendering one team a man short for almost the entire match. Except, not punishing the player does make it farcical, as the match became quite dirty with a serious of “square ups”. Mitch Langerak brought down a Saudi in his match in which he did get a yellow. Despite Andy Harper musing that the referee would have shown red had it been a “competitive” match, the foul was within the box, so no goal chance denied. In fact, a better one was awarded via the penalty kick. This is FIFA’s ridiculous “triple punishment” rule that’s been allowed to creep into the game. It will never be restored to its original purpose with muppets like Harper continuing to propagate FIFA’s folly.

With farcical refereeing and farcical conditions of these games, something must be done to classify a particular type of match outside of tournaments and qualifiers so that it be treated, and recorded, as a “competitive match”. The old days there was a reference to “A-Internationals”. For the sake of simplicity, how about Football Internationals that allow just the 3 subs and accurate refereeing. The option for the lesser match, the existing friendly or “farclie”, is an Exhibition or a Practice Match. These matches allow for the myriad of substitutions, and also, except for violent acts, allow a red-carded player to be substituted. That way you penalise the player without affecting the nature of the match.

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End triple-punishment and dubious offsides, for the good of the game

20 February 2014

Picture it: World Cup, South Africa, June 2010, Australia vs Ghana. In a goal mouth scramble, a Ghanian player strikes a thunderbolt for goal and it hits Harry Kewell on the arm, denying the goal. Penalty for Ghana. Despite the apparent accidental hand-ball, Kewell sent off, and banned for the next match. Unjust, ridiculous, absurd? You name it. It is. Especially when barely a match goes by and referees are denying goal scoring chances by their ineptitude to officiate offsides correctly. While no attention is given to the offside rule and the obvious need to help referees, players are dealt a brutish blow under the guise of “denying a goal-scoring opportunity”. Except the opportunity was never denied. Ghana was awarded a penalty, and scored.

Last night, the Champions League featuring Arsenal and Bayern Munich, enter Arsenal’s goalie, Wojciech Szczesny, who brought down Arjen Robben has he tried to poke a lobbed ball into the net. The goalie, entitled to go and try stop this, clumsily collided into Robben, and a penalty is called. After some minor deliberation, out popped the red, and with that, Szczesny suspended from his next match. Had there been no contact, it looked like Robben’s poke may have gone wide. In effect, he wasn’t even denied a goal scoring chance, he was provided a better one. Statistically, a penalty is far more likely to be converted than any one on one in general play against the goalkeeper. Only in handball situations like that of Kewell could it be said a team’s goal scoring chance is reduced via issuing a penalty.

It must be said, these two incidents are not the typical examples of the rule. Kewell was a handball and clearly stopped the goal, while Szczesny’s red card was valid for the ugly boot to Robben’s shin that quite easily could have broken his leg, even though it’s the “triple punishment” factor of seemingly a goalie’s non-dangerous penalty making the headlines. The more typical incidents are genuine attempts by a defender to tackle or a goalie to stop an attacker shooting, and bringing them down in the process. Outside the penalty box, it’s simply a foul. Inside, it’s mutated into this big, ugly monster of “denying goal scoring opportunities” and “last defender”, and other such pontificating. By the way, if you bring down a player outside the box, who’s to say you’re not denying a goal-scoring opportunity anyway? The width of a line should not matter between a red card or not. This is, indeed, the genesis of the rule.

Picture it. World Cup, Italy, 1990, known as the Cynical or Ugly World Cup. Countless tackles, often from behind, deliberating bringing down a player to stop them advancing on goal, specifically into the penalty box, where any foul would then have serious consequences of a penalty. I vaguely recall a Swedish player, versus Costa Rica, actually pulling down a player by a rugby tackle. Back then the penalty was a yellow card. FIFA’s response to this terrible behaviour was award such “professional fouls” a straight red. This was especially the case if you were the “last defender”, as obviously dragging down the player was your last recourse to deny an open attack on goal. For goalies, the rule was even more relevant, being used on those rushing outside the box to foul a player, not for fouling a player inside. Most famous case Australians will recall is by Robbie Zabica away to Canada in the 1993 World Cup qualifiers, Zabica was sent off early in the game, with Mark Schwarzer making his surprise debut. Both Zabica and Schwarzer were only involved because Mark Bosnich had sensationally “retired” from international football after submitting to the pressure from his club Aston Villa. He was back for the series against Argentina. The rule worked perfectly then. Had Zabica not been sent off, Australia would not have been penalised fairly for this infringement and Canada never get their goal scoring chance redressed. Players never respected yellow cards then. They still don’t. A red card is the only solution to stop this blight on the game.

Over 20 years since the law was enacted, commentators and fans and FIFA themselves have let it run amok. Even last week in Melbourne Victory’s Asian Champions League qualifier in Geelong, Fox Sport’s Andy Harper was prattling on about MV’s penalty and whether the Thai club should also have been given a red card. The foul was merely a clumsy attempt at winning the ball, which would have been a standard foul outside the box, so a free kick and no card. Here was Harper musing of the “last defender” despite several other Thai players in the box and the goalie in play to attempt a save. If you give that a red card, you give every penalty a red card, as essentially you are always “denying a goal scoring opportunity”. As his wont, at the other end, Harper was musing about a shoulder being offside for MV’s second goal. On one hand he wants to destroy one club’s chances with a severe punishment for a standard, miss-timed tackle while rewarding a team with a penalty and an extra player for the rest of the match, yet the player with maybe his shirt fabric offside, he wants this goal denied? There’s no consistency in philosophy for the good of the game, or any semblance of sane logic.

FIFA’s law: A player is sent off if he commits: 5) denies an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick. The way the law is now, any foul could be a red card, as most players fouled are indeed moving towards goal and making an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Note there’s no mention in the laws about the “last defender”, so that was only ever a commentator’s concoction, or maybe an outdated guideline.

The laws surrounding handball are even more bizarre, being a microcosm for the extremes of the game. It’s either a free kick if a player: handles the ball deliberately. Or it’s a red card if a player: denies the opposing team a goal or goalscoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball. There’s no case for a yellow card, and what constitutes “deliberately”? To a referee, deciding on “deliberate” is deciding between play-on or issuing a penalty, red card and a one match ban. Preposterous.

FIFA are apparently examining the laws that lead to this triple-punishment nonsense. Here is the solution. Any outfield player that deliberately brings down another that is clear on goal and outside the penalty box is red carded. Such infringements would be tackles at the feet, high tackles, tackles from behind, man-handling and shirt pulling. If a goalie rushes outside a box and brings down a player, red card. Any foul within the box is judged as it would be outside the box: unintentional is a penalty (or a direct free kick outside the box); intentional is a penalty (so an almost certain goal) and a yellow card. A shirt pull or holding is regarded as intentional. Handball should always be a penalty or free kick unless it directly blocks the ball from scoring (hits a defender on the line and the goalie is beaten), then it’s an automatic goal. Intentional handball (like arms extended) is a yellow – and that should be all over the pitch.

If you actually made yellow cards a 10 or 15 suspension from the game, they might create some deterrent factor too. Part of this move to wanton red cards is that a yellow is just not sufficient for some challenges. Now we are at the other end of outrage that a red is too severe. UEFA president Michel Platini is suggesting an orange card that would be a 15 minute suspension from the game to prevent this triple punishment scenario. A penalty and 15 minutes out of the game? Seems fairer. Either way, there is a ridiculous discrepancy between a red and a yellow card right now that should be addressed. It’s long been problematic.

Remember, you still have other laws for red cards like serious foul play and violent conduct, so if a player goes in with flying studs up or grapples an opponent to the ground, red card irsrespective of location of the foul. If a player grabs the ball like a basketball player as Luis Suarez did for Uruguay against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup semi final, red card (as it rightfully was). For the fabric of the game, let’s get it back to basics and the intention of the laws.

Triple punishment was never, ever envisaged as part of cleaning up the game. The intent was a double punishment for dreadful actions outside the box where an attack on goal was stopped totally and the opposition not rewarded. Inside the penalty box there was already the severe punishment of an almost certain goal via a penalty. Therefore the triple punishment should only ever be seen for the most cynical and unsportsmanlike of challenges, not for common skirmishes. Likewise the offside law was to stop strikers camping in the goal mouth, not to be recalled because defences are running them offside by an eyelash. When you actually have a “favour the attackers” guideline to support the rule, it’s even more bizarre that there are pinheads crusading on the tiniest of technicalities that only serve to harm the game, not enhance it.

More: http://socceroorealm.com

Holger gets it right in an epic draw against Japan

Saitama: Japan 1 – Australia 1

For all the furore of an aging team, and most particularly against Lucas Neill, coach Holger Osieck’s decision to restore the key central pairing of Neill and Sasa Ognenovski in defence paid off after Australia left Saitama with a 1-1 draw. They were maestros, reading every attack, and timing their tackling and lunges perfectly. It was a master class. While the result doesn’t change too much the requirements for Australia’s remaining games, it proved a fillip for a maligned team looking to rejuvenate both pride in themselves and hope in the fans to believe that qualification remains very much alive.

Played, Points & GD
Jap 7, 14, +10
Oma 7, 9, -2
Aus 6, 7, 0
Jor 6, 7, -6
Irq 6, 5, -2

Schedule
11/06 Aus v Jor; Irq v Jap
18/06 Aus v Iraq; Jor v Oma

Australia enters their final two games, both at home, needing to win to seal a direct place. Just as was the equation before last night’s match. The difference the draw makes is that Australia could survive a loss in one of those games, depending on results of other matches. The other game in the group saw Oman step into second place, albeit with an extra game played. Worse would have been Iraq winning as they are Australia’s opponents in two weeks, really making for a tingly finale. As it stands, Japan could knock them out next week. Oman’s final game is in two weeks in Jordan. So, you see that Australia beating Jordan next week is so defining. That would mean a draw between Jordan and Oman allows Australia the luxury to lose against Iraq if Iraq don’t beat Japan.

It’s important to see these qualifying groups in context. It’s about total points in the group, not needing to beat Japan away or winning any particular game. It’s about points. It’s about winning home games too. So far Australia’s only had two of four at home compared to Japan and Oman four of four. Just because Australia’s home games fall towards the end of the campaign it doesn’t diminish the points on offer. In the group wWe should expect to win at least two home games, if we can’t, we don’t deserve qualification. So far two draws, so probability is in our favour. For advocates of “knowing the equation” when preferring home legs last in two-leg playoffs, we also have that. Except, we have two home matches last.

For all the good defending, going forward was often a mess. With the open and fluid game that Japan allowed, Australia constantly messed up breaks. Brett Holman was his usual blight of constant rash play mixed with hard running and one good pass or shot. That lovely pass allowed Robbie Kruse through for a one-on-one, only to hit straight at the goalie. Tim Cahill lacked composure when fluffing the rebound. Earlier Holman also lacked composure when shooting from a broken attack from over 40 metres out when propping and waiting for a runner would serve better. Japan had even better chances and can lament weak finishing and Mark Schwarzer in Australia’s goal.

It just makes you marvel at the vagaries of the game if Japan nailed one of their early chances, Tom Oar’s late cross had not snuck in to score or the late handball against Matt McKay that saw Japan equalise in injury time. A 0-0 and Australia would be happy; at 1-1 not so much given the circumstances. We all should remember, not least the menace of Fox Sport’s Andy Harper, this splendour of the sport, that goals and swings in momentum can come from nothing. The need to build an elaborate and often premature melodramatic narrative of the game exposes a lack of control of the mouth more commonly seen in other parts of the male anatomy. Really, give us a break. Can we just enjoy the game?

* Apologies for the abridged update. A broken collarbone from a bike crash with typing limited to one bruised left hand.

More: socceroorealm.com