The Rational Ref

Swansea ball boy's act against Chelsea reflects poor gamesmanship in soccer

Teenager's boast about time-wasting act that led to Hazard's sending-off at Swansea illustrates the game's slide into dishonorable gamesmanship

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 3:37am

Chelsea's Eden Hazard created his own danger zone for kicking, or appearing to kick, a misbehaving ball boy. Referee Chris Foy did not see the incident, when Swansea were protecting a 2-0 aggregate score against Chelsea during the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at the Liberty Stadium last month. Foy, instead, relied on advice from his assistant referee and correctly sent off the 22-year-old Belgian for violent conduct.

The fact that the 17-year-old ball boy had bragged about his time-wasting responsibilities on social media, and magnificently mimicked the amateur dramatics of his celebrity soccer role models on home turf, does not excuse Hazard's impudent reaction. It merely provides context.

The context is soccer's slide into the depths of deceitful, dishonest and dishonorable delinquency. It is gamesmanship solely for the sake of winning at all costs and extends throughout all levels of the game, where it is widely expected that anyone associated with a club must possess and be seen to possess blind, unthinking and passionate allegiance.

This gamesmanship is increasingly malignant and has become highly infectious, affecting almost every stakeholder in the modern game. This is shown by the incredibly wide-ranging reactions of anyone who is capable of expressing a biased or provocative opinion - which is echoed and amplified by the media in all its diverse forms - so the cacophony of confusion, conflicts of interest and cheating drown out facts.

So instead of accepting Hazard's punishment for what it is - a standard three-match ban for violent conduct - opinions ran the gamut, from one extreme opining "Hazard deserves an eight-month ban similar to Eric Cantona's penalty for his flying kung-fu kick at a fan" all the way to the other extreme insisting "it wasn't a red card at all because Hazard kicked the ball, not the ball boy, who incidentally is the privileged son of Swansea's largest shareholder and director".

Because of these extreme and biased viewpoints, which unsurprisingly are inflated by the media, the FA initially reacted by stating that Hazard's three-match ban was "insufficient punishment".

However, after deliberation, an FA independent disciplinary commission last week upheld the standard ban.

Had Hazard's ban been extended, this would have added extra grease to soccer's slippery slope into degeneracy, since it would have condoned all kinds of gamesmanship at all levels of the game. Nevertheless, the FA, in true inconsistent form, neglected to reprimand Swansea for failing to discipline its ball boys for time-wasting.

Ball boys, who in England are supposed to be deployed by the home club from the ages of 12 to 16 years, are meant to help return a ball to the pitch. But clubs everywhere realise that ball boys with loyalty to the home team are used strategically.

Former England and Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle said as much: "Mark my words, the ball boys will have been told to do that. As a manager, you will tell people instructing the ball boys that if you're winning the game, don't give the ball back quickly."

This has become one of the many forms of cynical conduct seen in the game, which also includes players and coaches deliberately and constantly challenging match officials for every decision made that goes against them.

Coaches and players with everything to lose will stop at nothing to claim an edge, however miniscule it is. At the highest level, the difference between winning and losing is measured in fractions of space, time and psychology. Consequently, this attitude filters down all the way to the grass roots of the game.

Looking further, should home teams be supplying ball boys (and girls) in the first place?

In Hong Kong, the HKFA supplies ball boys for all First Division matches. At club level, this solves the problem of bias from ball kids, but it simultaneously limits the participation of club youth members. Yet during international matches, HKFA ball boys could conceivably favour the home team.

So where does the bias stop? Anyone care to hazard a guess?

The solution, as with many types of gamesmanship unfolding during matches, is for players and coaches to leave it to the match officials.

An experienced referee would have sensed what was going on at Swansea and been proactive in stopping the time-wasting. Failing that, the referee can make it clear that stoppage time will be added to compensate for any unnatural, unreasonable and unsporting delays.

Players and coaches need the wherewithal to trust match officials, instead of foolishly taking it upon themselves to retrieve balls from not-so-little boys behaving badly.