Australia through to the semis, Iran and Japan out

24 January 2015

Quarter Finals
21/01 Melbourne: Korea 2 – Uzbekistan 0 (AET)
21/01 Brisbane: Australia 2 – China
22/01 Canberra: Iran 3 – Iraq 3 (1-1 FT, 6-7 PK)
22/01 Sydney: Japan 1 – UAE 1 (4-5 PK)

So much for the “mother of all football games” of Australia facing Iran in the Asian Cup final, with a match against Japan in the semis before that. While both Australia and Iran did their jobs in the group phase (Australia lost their last match, Iran won theirs), neither Japan or Iran could survive the first knockout game. Iran was terribly unlucky, losing a man early through a dubious red card when leading and then responding twice in extra time to draw the game level, while Japan failed to convert their rare chances eked out against the resolute UAE defence. Both matches went to penalty shootouts that proved notable for none of the four goalies able to make a save. The shootouts were decided on the kickers missing the goal totally. So much for the nonsense that shootouts are about luck. They are 100% skill and the ultimate test of nerve. Shoot straight and you convert, always.

After a tough first half, the Socceroos breezed through 2-0 over China in their quarter final. It’s amazing that a couple of goals can transform a game so much. Despite ridiculous statistics like 288 passes to 70 and 72% possession during the first half, China had Australia well contained, and looked dangerous on the break. While coach Ange Postecoglou said the strategy was to maintain possession and tire the Chinese, it looked more like he was trying to bore them to death. The vast bulk of that possession was messing about in the back line. Too often, forward approaches often resulted in the ball passed back. When Tim Cahill broke the stalemate early in the second half, it didn’t come from open play, it came from the second phase of a corner, with a delightful bicycle kick. Whether by design or accident, the ball came off the outside of his shin for the perfect angled shot across the face of goal. Fifteen minutes later, Cahill made it 2-0, this time from a trademark header from open play. From there, with China really opening up, Australia looked dangerous, creating many chances, unfortunately converting none, which is a concern.

Superficially the quarter final results seemed a great outcome for Australia. UAE in the semi finals is supposedly easier than Japan, while it will be Iraq or Korea (who knocked out Uzbekistan) in the final. The quarter final results show that the perceived difficulty factor doesn’t always correlate with reality on the day. Japan would not sit back against Australia like UAE most likely will do, so they could allow more chances to be created. Then there’s always the notorious frail Australian sporting psyche that can see them beat top teams one match then succumb to weaker teams in the next. The bravado entering these games often sees respect for the opponent lost, bullying becomes the game plan, the match doesn’t progress as expected, pressure builds, and it’s calamity. With Postecoglou at the helm, let’s hope he keeps that reigned in.

The quarter finals of the Asian Cup have been an some turnaround for Middle Eastern teams. Of the 10 that qualified for Australia, 7 went home after the knockout stage, with two that did progress coming from a group of four Middle Eastern teams. The only east Asian team that failed in the group phase was DPR Korea. Even then, DPR Korea’s supreme leader has no doubt told his people that their current world champions have demolished their group and quarter final opponents, and are on the way to winning the Asian Cup to match their World Cup winning romp in Brazil last year. That western Asia now has half the semi finalists is some redemption for their poor results over the past two World Cup cycles that’s only seen one team (Iran for Brazil 2014) qualify. Even accounting for Australia’s presence in Asia taking a spot, Bahrain failed in a playoff against New Zealand for 2010 and former powerhouse Saudi Arabia failed to even reach the final Asian qualifying phase last time. Ideally it would be good to see one of the Middle Eastern teams in the Asian Cup final, as long as it’s not the UAE.

Iran’s Red Card

Any major tournament sees issues emerge. While the group phase progressed smoothly, even to the point of producing no draws and every group finishing with teams on 9, 6, 3 and 0 points, the major talking point of the quarter finals was the second yellow card against Iran’s Mehrdad Pooladi. The clash with the Iraqi goalie was never a yellow card, and it was only made worse by the fact the referee, Australia’s Ben Williams, forgot Pooladi was already on a yellow. The Iraqis then reminded the referee of the case, to which the red card was issued.

The big question: would the yellow have been issued had Williams remembered the first yellow? The thing is, it shouldn’t matter. Here you have referees – and they all do it – trying to finesse the laws of the games. It’s either a yellow card offence, or it isn’t. It seems Williams – as all referees do – consider previous behaviour before issuing a card and therefore do it for general insubordination – known as “accumulated fouling”. As we’ve seen, how can referees remember the little incidents from each player that support such a case? One such challenge is a verbal warning, second or third is a yellow. Clearly the referees can’t remember. Even worse, if there’s legitimate accumulated fouling by a player already on a yellow, only the final minor foul will be remembered for the second yellow, and therefore the red, which outrages all. How can you send someone off for barely a tickle? Well, that’s the outcome of finessing the law to include accumulated fouling.

If the incident was adjudicated in isolation, there’d be no yellow and therefore Iran keeps their man in a match they were dominating, and probably go on to win. The referee’s either confused the player, or forgotten that he issued a yellow for the earlier incident. It’s not Williams’ fault either. It’s the sport’s antiquated laws and the culture that thinks players can be moulded and taught to play the perfectly behaved game on the edge of the laws. They can’t, and humans, especially in ultra competitive sport, will always be prone to bend the laws as far as possible. In fact, such finessing of the laws by the referees only encourages it. Players on a yellow believe that only a more serious infraction than normal will earn a second yellow, so bend the rules further.

Time Wasting

The Asian Football Confederation promoted before the tournament “Don’t Delay Let’s Play Football”. Apparently they want 60 minutes of actual game time in each 90 minutes. While this tournament has been much better than others, it proved a farce in the Iran-Iraq quarterfinal once extra time started. The second period went for 23 minutes for about 5 minutes of play. Much of the last 10 minutes were taken by the Iranian goalie suffering a wrist injury and the bizarre medical practice of spraying every part of his body except his wrist with some sort of magic spray. Once the goalie was up and the ball back in play, time was instantly called. The first period also had many stoppages, and was stopped bang on 15 minutes. Again, you blame the sport’s antiquated laws and culture. If you want 60 minutes of game time, simply have 30 minute halves and stop the clock on every single stoppage, just like in American football. Once time is up, play is stopped once the ball becomes dead. Extra time period is 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes. Right now, 15 minute halves seem too much as players are clearly conserving energy even during regulation time to prepare for ET.

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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.

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