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.