Law and Order

26 Nov

Discipline is everything in the journalism game.  If I find that our Copy Editor hasn’t neatly cropped the borders on an article, I’m angry.  If one of the Staff Writers doesn’t use the appropriate accolade to describe Gareth Barry, he or she will be shown the door.

This hard-line in achieving obedience stems from an exemplary upbringing.  Discipline was foremost in the Too Good household.  Get caught pinching the chocolate buttons off the sponge cake and there was a stern talking to on the cards.  A second act of buttons-based larceny would see Ma Too Good roll up her sleeve and leave no stone unturned on the seat of your Diadora-sponsored tracksuit bottoms.  To this day, my flanks still instinctively clench when I notice a topping has been removed from a home-made cake.

Discipline is needed now more than ever.  The world has become a lawless place.  We live in a society where you can pistol-whip prostitutes in computer games and David Dimbleby has a tattoo.  Gentler times these are not.

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Football, as ever in its role as mirror to society, reflects these changes in societal norms.  The game has become more cynical.  There was a Rubicon moment in the 2002 World Cup when, for the first time ever, England tried to wind down the clock by keeping the ball in the corner.  It was during the group match against Argentina.  As odd as it may sound, we’d never done such a thing up until then.  “Win at all costs” has always been the mentality for the professional game but, these days, teams really are examining every last nook and cranny for an advantage.

Keeping the ball in the corner is, at least, within the laws of the game (if not exactly bursting with Corinthian spirit).  It is the cynicism that has taken root regarding fully blown transgressions of the rules where football has truly lost its discipline…

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In the modern game, a curious abrogation of moral responsibility takes place when we see an opposing player go on the attack.  Sensing a hint danger, one of our own team’s players gently bundles the attacking player to the ground.  Not with any great force.  Indeed, with as little force as was necessary to complete the task.  Certainly not with any great aggression – it is perfectly possible that the fouled player will be picked up and dusted down for his troubles. 

A foul is given.  We, the viewing public, turn to a friend and, nodding sagely, declare that it was a “clever foul”.  Continuing the ethical vacuum, said friend looks back in our direction and, with very considerable solemnity, agrees that, yes, it was indeed a “very clever foul”.  To bolster their opinion, they too nod sagely.  We nod sagely a bit more in return and then, after a while, the nodding subsides and normal life resumes.

The foul was “clever” because, even if it wasn’t committed in the exigencies of great danger, the attacking team has lost momentum.  The co-commentator may even commend a team for doing a good job of “breaking up the play”.  It’s a Macabrian world out there and we’ve all collaborated. 

Such profound erudition in praising the “clever foul” overlooks one, rather important, thing.  It was a foul.  The clue was in the name.  It shouldn’t have happened.  It was naughty.  We shouldn’t be praising the antagonist’s behaviour.  We should be wagging a stern finger and telling his mother.

How did we allow the phrase “a clever foul” to pass so acceptingly into the footballing lexicon?  The answer is because we’re all complicit.  50% of the time that a clever foul is committed, it is to our own team’s advantage[1].  Do this enough over 90 minutes and it might help us get a result in a tight game; and that’s what makes it ok.  As Oliver Cromwell once put it, we’ve bartered our conscience for the bribe of all three points at Goodison Park.

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Well I’m not having it anymore.  A foul is only clever if the laws of the game allow it to be.  So let’s make “clever” fouls become just another stupid foul.  Mirthy transvestite, Russell Brand, wants a political revolution.  Good for him.  I want a footballing one.

Former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, once had the idea that if you committed three acts of criminality, it was fair to assume that you’d gotten a taste for felonious behavior and the best place for you was probably on the inside of a prison.  Journalists bestowed this policy with the moniker “Three Strikes and You’re Out”.  I like the sound of this Straw fella.  Straw would never have allowed a “clever crime”.  If you are able to reflect on a misdemeanor in the cold light of day and still think it was “worth” committing, the punishment wasn’t sufficient.

Football should follow suit.  If you commit three fouls in a game, you should be asked to leave the pitch.  Simple as that.

If you can’t go 90 minutes without unintentionally clattering people three times, you’re not in control of your limbs.  Even Andy Carroll, who at times resembles an inebriated Daddy Long Legs at the back end of a long summer, even he can refrain from unintentionally fouling people three times in a match.

There is almost always at least some intent when a foul is committed.  For all the “what, me, guvnor?” remonstrations after the event, players know what they are doing.  Like bankers, toddlers and the writers of South Park, they’re just seeing what they can get away with.  They’re using up the referee’s patience in a fuel-efficient manner.

Well no more.  Three offences in one game and you get first dibs on the shower gel.  Yellow and red cards remain in force just as before, so a nefarious player’s exit can still be expedited if necessary. 

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I know this all sounds a bit radical but try to approach the problem from afresh.  Fouling is cheating.  A boxing referee wouldn’t let one pugilist repeatedly punch the other bloke in the knackers.  If you land two low-blows, you have a point deducted.  Swing a third haymaker in the direction of your opponent’s tackle and you’ll get disqualified.  No arguments.  It’s against the rules and it gives you an unfair advantage.  Why should football permit circumstances where it is demonstrably the better option to foul rather than to play fair? 

You may love or loathe Cristiano Ronaldo, but he’s one of the most skilful players on earth and, for the sins of being bloody amazing, gets repeatedly kicked.  Weirdly, this is tolerated.  Ronnie sits there on the floor seven or eight times a game, bruised from thigh to toe, pleading with us to take action against his miscreants.  And we do nothing.  We walk on by like he’s asking us for spare change for a cup of tea. 

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Smoking would undoubtedly be outlawed if it was invented today.  Similarly, if we were to invent football again from scratch, I don’t think we would allow Ronaldo to be tripped and kicked quite so many times.  Sometimes it’s only the historical legacy which stops us from progressing.  If the rules of football were drawn up tomorrow, would we really create a landscape where it was possible to constantly foul the most skilful players on the opposition team?  I can’t remember the last time Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi went an entire game without being fouled.  Tellingly, I very much doubt they can either.  Why are we allowing this? 

Rules are only strong enough if they stop people committing the crime.  If you could murder someone and get away with a £50 fine and a few hours’ community service, people would be firing up their chainsaws at the drop of a hat.  The punishment isn’t sufficient.  It’s only the threat of 25 long years in the slammer which keeps our murderous lust at bay.  A deterrent has to be worthy of the name.  Believe me when I say I had a long, hard think about making it just Two Strikes and You’re Off.  Then we’d see a clean game of football.

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I’m a traditionalist.  I have no desire to see goal-line technology implemented and I wept openly during the dark days of golden and silver goals.  I wouldn’t recommend any rule change (and certainly not one as fundamental as this) without the greatest of caution.  But sometimes developments precipitate the need for change.

People have worked out how to cheat effectively.  The game has been enveloped by a collective awareness that it is better to foul on occasions than to play within the rules.  A calculated evil has taken hold where the spirit of fair play used to reside.  And we’ve accepted it without a whimper.

I’m convinced that the implementation of a “Three Strikes” rule would result in more enjoyable football matches; for both participant and spectator.  Games would have a much greater flow.  We would see more of what we’re meant to see in a game.  Football.  Artistry at both ends of the pitch.  Great attacking football countered by skillful and crisp dispossessions.

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Do you recall what made you fall in love with playing football?  Was it flying down the wing on the school field, sparks crackling from the man-made fibre of your Reebok two-piece?  Or was it craftily legging someone up who was attempting a dribble?  Would you have developed the same affection for the game if, every time you beat a man, the next player grabbed just enough of your shirt to hold you back?

All that it takes for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing.  Pernicious fouling makes football less enjoyable than it otherwise would be.  We should do more to combat it. 

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Obviously we’d need to replace Howie Webb with someone a little stricter.

Obviously we would need to replace Howie Webb with someone a little stricter.


[1] More, if you’re a Chelsea fan.

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