The Rational Ref

Rational Ref: Time to get serious on 'shirty' acts

Fifa's silly sanctions miss the real issue of what actually is being said in all of those 'headless chicken' celebrations of goals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 4:27am

When players get 'shirty' with refereeing decisions, they usually stand naked in their protests. But when players are cautioned for going shirtless there are growing threads of suspicion that those, including referees, without a strip of common sense who blindly accept Fifa's rule, have the wool pulled over their eyes.

Although the laws of the game are there for a purpose, there are some rules that are nonsensical, outdated or both. One of the silliest rules referees are ordered to follow has to be the unavoidable caution for goal scorers who remove their shirts, pull them over their heads, or use the shirt front as a mask to cover their faces.

A player performing these actions is cautioned for what match officials call unsporting behaviour. However, players can also be cautioned for other offences grouped as unsporting behaviour such as making a reckless tackle, deliberately handling the ball to score or to stop an attack, and diving. Technically, this makes all these offences equal. Who is hoodwinking whom here?

Recent selected examples of silly shirt sanctions include Manchester City's Eden Dzeko who removed his shirt after scoring against Stoke on New Year's Day to reveal "Happy New Year" printed on his undershirt; Fulham's Dimitar Berbatov taking off his top to show "Keep Calm And Pass Me The Ball"; and Mario Balotelli's shirt-over-his-head pose to expose his famously rhetorical "Why Always Me?"

These are buttoned-on bookings since by now everyone knows the ruling and yet foolishly players continue to strip off. Some relatively smarter players have cottoned on and only go so far as pulling the shirt up to their chins.

Bosnian Dzeko took a week to learn this trick because last weekend, after scoring against Arsenal, he carefully raised up his shirt to his chin to reveal his message. Dzeko must have been needled by teammate Carlos Tevez since the Argentine has always made use of the loophole in the law by lifting his shirt to his chin. [Tevez was also the first player in the English Premier League to display messages on his shin pads. There was a time when, after scoring a goal, he would remove his shin guards to reveal the names of his two daughters.

The shenanigans with shirts came to a head because of an Italian nicknamed "the white feather". Fabrizio Ravanelli, who played for Middlesborough in the 1996-1997 EPL season, sewed up his signature celebration by masking his face with his shirt every time he scored.

The trend caught on, with players celebrated by removing their shirts or masked their faces while running amok like headless chickens. It reached crisis point at the 2002 World Cup when players such as Brazil's Ronaldhino were snagged and stitched up, unable to put back on their poorly designed shirts after their uplifting goal celebrations. This is the reason why in 2004 Fifa eventually tailored the ruling of a mandatory caution, declaring goal celebrations must not be excessive or result in significant time-wasting.

The original intent of shirt removal was for the egotistical goal scorer to bare his superior physique when every camera in the stadium was focused on him. These days such incidents are uncommon since most players wear compression undergarments. An exception is Balotelli who at last summer's European Championships unabashedly revealed his sculpted body to the world.

Nowadays, the purpose of shirt removal has shifted from showing off to showing off a statement. The showy expressions by Dzeko, Berbatov and Balotelli are harmless and, if anything, add to the entertainment value. Nevertheless, Fifa rules unequivocally warn against messages being political, religious, commercial or personal.

When Everton's Steven Pienaar scored against Chelsea over the Christmas period, his statement was "God is Great". Manchester City's Samir Nasri, of Algerian extract, revealed "Eid Mubarak", a traditional Muslim greeting. These are religious messages and the rules unmistakably state the competition organiser or Fifa will sanction the player making such statements, or his team. However, there is no indication that there will be any punishment, and even if there were some would quickly snip it off due to the woolly nature of the subject matter.

Rational Ref takes a hard line on consistency here. If referees are strongly advised to follow the rules of a mandatory caution to goal scorers who remove their shirts, then why are competition organisers and Fifa not following suit on their own obligatory ruling in disciplining those who display religious messages?

The issue of referees taking action against shirt removal has evolved into one against making potentially inflammatory statements, which steadfastly comes under the jurisdiction of the competition organiser and Fifa. This is why the mandatory caution for shirt removal is outdated and, like an old sweater that has seen better days, should be tossed aside. Everyone should now get shirty and starchy about provocative messages.