Own goals by soccer cheats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 July, 2010, 12:00am

The World Cup proved a triumph for the predictions of an octopus called Paul, which accurately forecast the rise and fall of Germany and the ultimate victory of Spain, whereas regular soccer pundits and the quants with their battery of supercomputers had tipped Brazil or Argentina or Germany or even hapless England to win.

Nevertheless, now that the vuvuzelas have sounded their last hurrahs, troubling questions remain, particularly about the dirty play at the heart of the so-called beautiful game. Fifa, the governing body of the international sport, has a 140-page book of rules and regulations that say not a word about the most troubling aspect of the game - cheating.

Players and coaches are so intent on winning at all costs that cheating is part and parcel of the performance. Germany's goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, boasted that by carrying on as if nothing had happened after Englishman Frank Lampard's shot had bounced out of his goal, he may have fooled the referee into believing that the ball had not crossed the line. Fifa said nothing, did nothing, even after Neuer made his provocative comments.

Princeton University professor Peter Singer (in this newspaper) has been virtually the only person to call Neuer a cheat for trying to fool the referee.

Soccer players and the authorities don't seem to understand how cheating is a cancer eating at the game. Another example was the goal-line 'save' by Uruguay's Luis Suarez - using his hand - when Ghana's final-minute shot was all but in the net.

As far as most soccer players are concerned, Suarez 'did what he had to do' to prevent a goal. What, then, about the red-carded offender being carried shoulder-high by his colleagues as if he were a conquering hero? The referee should have given red cards to all the Uruguayan players and coaches for this unsportsmanlike behaviour, which brought the game into disrepute.

In the final between the Netherlands and Spain, English referee Howard Webb gave 13 yellow cards for cautions and one red card. The referee was far from being fussy: if he had properly penalised every illegal trip and push there would have been no one left to play, at least on the Dutch side.

Referees routinely ignore shirt-pullings and constant pushing and shoving, especially before set-piece plays like corners and free kicks. At a free kick, the defending wall is supposed to be 10 metres back from the kicker, but it rarely is. In one World Cup game, two defenders rushed the kicker before he had a chance to connect with the ball. They went unpunished.

The excuse of soccer players, from the park level to the premier professional leagues, is that all sorts of cheating - from handling the ball to shirt-pulling and shoving - is part of the game, even on the Hackney Marsh pitches (London local leagues). But years ago when I was playing for my school, no one thought of grabbing an opponent by the shirt or sticking an elbow into someone's back or kicking the opponent instead of the ball - not without risking instantly being sent off and possibly never allowed to play again.

Soccer became the 'beautiful game' because the skills of dribbling, passing and shooting a ball with the feet are something that almost everyone can understand, but only a few brilliant players can do with grace and power. The skills of the best players are being killed by a mixture of overt and underhand cheating and foul play.

Yes, it is sometimes difficult to judge where robust tackles become rough or foul, or whether a player has been felled by his own play-acting. But it is time for referees to reassert the essential need for fair play and sportsmanship, which has almost gone from the supposedly professional game. A 'professional foul' is always unprofessional and should be punished.

This can only be done with the full backing of Fifa and the various national soccer authorities. That's because poorly paid referees cannot stand up to star players with big names and bigger pay packets without backing from soccer authorities.

Players and their managers claim the excuse that they must win at all costs, or they will lose their jobs and extravagant salaries. But this is the false logic of the individual; the game as a whole would be restored to its beautiful glory if skills were allowed to flower and not be chopped down by cheating and foul play.

Fifa does not have the excuse of money. It has pots of it - US$3.2 billion in winnings from South Africa. Some of that should be returned to South Africa for the magnificent organisation and hospitality it brought to the World Cup. Goal-line technology should be introduced, and video replays could be considered if they do not interfere with the run of the play. But the key task of soccer, and Fifa, is to get rid of the culture of cheating. Is Sepp Blatter too mesmerised by the dazzling stars that are spoiling the game to do his job?

Kevin Rafferty started his journalism career writing about soccer and cricket, and covered a European Cup final for the Financial Times