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Jul 3, 2006

Their cheating hearts

Summer romances are often ephemeral in their nature. You commit yourself recklessly to a relationship with strangers in a foreign land, willingly seduced by their exotic swagger and charm, blind to any faults that may lurk beneath the surface. As quickly as this love has blossomed, however, it dies on the vine. Inevitably you catch them cheating. A lot.

The sight of Thierry Henry falling to the ground as if a crowbar had been smashed into his face, late in France's compelling second round tie with Spain, after colliding chest-to-shoulder with the substantial frame of Carlos Puyol, was as unedifying as it was unwelcome in a World Cup that had bristled with possibilities and promised to be a classic.

With four games left to go and each of the four remaining teams justifiably believing that they could yet be crowned champions it still might.

But much of the early gloss has been eroded by a fatalistically accepted rash of play-acting unfortunately usually rewarded with a flury of red and yellow cards.

After Arsenal's Champions League final defeat to Puyol's Barcelona in May this year, an enraged and emotional Henry had proclaimed, sarcastically it seemed at the time, that, next time he probably ought to 'learn how to dive. But I am not a woman.'

Now either he has managed to conceal from the world's press some very delicate surgery or something has changed in his philosophy.

A justifiably bewildered Puyol was booked for the 'assault'. The free kick produced the winning goal. France had been the better team over the course of the game and merited their win.

But Henry's fraud only added to a growing cloud that has cast a dark shadow over these finals.

It is perhaps unfair to single out Henry for he is far from unique in this respect, still less the worst offender. But his case is indicative of a monster of FIFA's making.

As is the organisation's want, prior to this tournament referees were given a set of orders as to how matches should be officiated. A document prepared by FIFA's head of refereeing, Jose-Maria Garcia Aranda, referred to 'proactive refereeing' aimed at ensuring 'player safety [which] is paramount...we must protect the skilful players.'

And this is why the case of Henry is so instructive. Henry, one of the game's brightest talents, is exactly to type of player to which Aranda's diktat referred.

With no history of, or reputation for, unsporting behaviour Henry still felt compelled to shamelessly seek further sanction against an opponent once a free kick had been won. The Arsenal striker is blessed with the skills near all of his peers envy and yet he chose to employ the dark arts to complement his more virtuous talents in Germany.

What is more, though he fooled the referee and did gain advantage for his side at the expense of the innocent Puyol, with TV cameras trained on all parts of the ground he cannot reasonably have expected his transgression to go unnoticed.

On the contrary, he was simply willing to trade his reputation for fairness for immediate gain. He didn't care his deception would be exposed and was unrepentant after the event. It is a sad indictment of both the man and the state of the game today.

With just the semi-finals and finals left to play 332 yellow cards have been brandished, some of them contributing to the 27 red we have seen. That one of these, a third yellow shown to Josip Simunic by the hapless English referee Graham Poll, should be discounted does nothing to detract from the scale of the problem.

Through the entire 2002 tournament just 166 cards were dished out. It follows then that this year's competition is twice as dirty as the last. This is palpably not the case.

Rather, the inflated figure owes much to referees' eagerness to reach for the pocket, following to the letter the overbearing instructions of their paymasters from FIFA.

Though the standard of refereeing has been at best average, it is the governing body's compulsion to place pressure on their shoulders that has contributed to the possibility of going on half the Portuguese team, should they reach the final, being absent from their country's biggest match in its history; this after two key men missed their quarter final and players from other competing nations suffered similarly through suspensions in earlier rounds.

That Portugal themselves have been one of the most cynical of offenders perhaps offers a comforting irony in this respect but little more.

FIFA have been clumsy, the referees weak or just following orders, depending on your view point but, of course, the real villains of the piece are the players who have unscrupulously exploited the situation.

As soon as the first card happy referees set the tone of the tournament, a number of players - not all certainly but enough - have tried to use it to their advantage. A roll here, a dying swan routine there: one could be forgiven for thinking on occasion that there were more snipers in the upper tier of German stadiums this summer than on the rooftops of Basra.

The game is turning into a theatre for outrageous charlatans and thieves, conning those watching in the grounds and at home as much as they are the referees. The art of defending, if not a dying one then certainly very unwell, becomes a lottery when a mistimed tackle could easily be your last contribution to a game.

It is an honourable thing that FIFA seek to protect the artist over the artisan but their meddling has been ill judged and we all suffer the consequences.

So what is the solution? It could be hoped that the players themselves would have the decency to act in arresting the malaise that now exists. But the evidence from the past three weeks suggests that hope will forever be in vain. The belief that this is now simply 'all part of the game' is far too ingrained; the implication being that when it comes to cheating if you can't beat them, it is vastly better to join them.

And so an external imperative for change is necessary. FIFA, and Sepp Blatter in particular, may be intransigently against it but the judicious use of technology seems the most viable answer

If we, the viewing public, can see such unambiguous examples of outright cheating played out in a loop on rolling sports news channels each day then so can the authorities. Sanctioning players that bring the game in to disrepute in this fashion - with serious, lengthy bans - through trail by video would tip the balance back in the favour of the honest professional.

If the risk of being caught and punished starts to outweigh the possible reward of a penalty or the sending off of an opponent then players will be dissuaded from chancing their arms.

As it stands so few of that huge number of yellow cards were for 'simulation' as to suggest there is no problem at all and give those of such a bent every incentive to hit the turf at the merest suggestion of contact in and around the box. Why not; what's the worst that can happen?

Only when the punishment truly fits the crime will we start to rid the game of this cancer and maybe avoid the heartbreak of another tournament that promises us the world and then runs off with a Portuguese waiter with an eye for the theatrical.


  • Email steve.wilson@soccernet.com with your thoughts.