Deliberate Deliberations

Surely I can’t be the only one more than a little confused at the decision by the English FA to rescind the red card that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually was awarded for his sprawling save in the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea. I mean as deliberate hand balls go this season that was by far the pick of the bunch. Arsenal contested the decision on the basis that the visible trajectory of Eden Hazard’s attempt on goal was destined to go wide and as such the midfielders deliberate, and successful, attempt to stop the ball with his hand would have all been in vain anyway. The FA’s conclusions to agree with Arsenals’ thesis on this matter is one of the most ridiculous decisions of the season and I’m astounded that given the propensity for the English media to chastise the FA and all that they do there has been not so much as a whimper of disagreement, in fact I’ve read and heard many agreeing with what the FA has decreed.

I’ve been trying to rationalise the outcome of the governing bodies findings and I have struggled whilst simultaneously trying to cast aside any conspiracy theories about how being young and English give’s you that little bit of extra leeway. Somehow over the last 12 months the rules surrounding handball have become just as muddled as offside and the six-second rule. Natural body position, deviations in flight and general proximity to the ball itself have all been used as defence’s when the deliberate nature of handball has been the focus of debate, and you know what? That’s fine, it would be remiss of any official not to take these factor’s into consideration when making a final decision, the problem I have is that in the case of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain none of these factors came in to play. It was deliberate as deliberate could get. Yes, Andre Marriner made a massive error in red-carding Kieran Gibbs but the decision to give a red card and penalty for the offence itself was spot on as far as I’m concerned.

Let us try to transport ourselves into the mind of ‘The Ox’ on that fateful Saturday lunchtime. Your team are 2-0 down after a 15 minute spell where you are getting totally over-run, recent history has shown that another thumping is on the cards and here come Chelsea again. You get yourself back on the line for the inevitable moment they manage to break through once again. The shot comes in and it’s heading towards you. It’s at chest height but too far away to get in front of it. You could head it away but with the speed of the ball coming at you the lack of control you would have would probably result in a goal anyway. You decide to risk it and fling your body to your left and stick your hand out to claw the ball away. Now I’m fully aware that the timeframe required to read that paragraph is far greater than the time the midfielder had to make the same decision but I hope it shows that the decision he made to throw a hand out to stop it was a conscious one and one taken oblivious to the fact that the ball was going wide and as such a foul worthy of a straight red card.

Whenever I delve into a debate of this nature I like a comparison and when it comes to red cards and handballs there are a few to pick from but I have restricted myself to just a couple, both with goal scoring opportunities at the heart of them.

One of my earliest memories of being a Scotland fan is a World Cup qualifier in 1992 away to Switzerland, at that time I had to make do with a combination of radio and late night television highlights but I, like many other members of the Tartan Army, still to this day remember the moment that Richard Gough caught the ball. A good old-fashioned punt up the park from the Swiss defence headed towards the then Scotland captain. With a Swiss forward descending all the signs pointed towards Gough launching a header back from where it came, however the ball was too high and in a moment of madness he reached his arms into the air and plucked it from the sky like a front row in a rugby line-out thus preventing an almost certain one-on-one opportunity for Switzerland to score. His punishment was rightly a red card but imagine that same scenario in the world of the English FA. If you refer back to the  Oxlade-Chamberlain incident as Gough’s offence did not occur within the 8ft by 8yd area contained within the goal posts a red card would not have been necessary.

If that is too subtle what about the moment where Luis Suarez ‘broke the hearts of Africa’, as one commentator proclaimed, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when stopping Asaomah Gyan’s winner in the final minutes of extra time in Uruguay’s World Cup quarter-final with Ghana. He was again rightly red carded and much debate followed about whether Suarez had cheated or simply done what he had to do to keep his side in the tournament. His histrionics as Gyan missed the resulting penalty are now part of World Cup folklore but there is no debating that the punishment fitted the crime. If that ball was going a couple of inches over the bar and Suarez had done the same thing would there have been the same ambivalence to the incident by the media and the red card reversed or would a pre-Premier League Suarez be a villain before he had even hit these shores. Suarez just like Oxlade-Chamberlain was knowingly trying to stop a goal, the only difference was the shot he stopped was on target.

My argument remains that Oxlade-Chamberlain was guilty of preventing a goal scoring opportunity with his hand and the red card and penalty awarded was the correct decision to give. The fact that the ball was going off target is a technicality that opens a can of worms that will go to further blur the lines of what should be one of the simplest rules in a game where the primary objective of an outfield player is to kick it with his foot, not to juggle it with his hand.

The Boys Who Cry Wolf

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The AFC U22 Championship is not usually where I would find inspiration for the things I write but an incident in the quarter final between South Korea and Syria was sufficient in prompting me into writing about something that more than a niggles. In this instance, with South Korea comfortably leading 2-0 they followed popular convention and kicked the ball out of play so treatment could be given to an injured Syrian midfielder. Syria, however, never got the memo and from the resulting throw in proceeded to score an ultimately meaningless goal in their sides 2-1 defeat in Oman.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, think back to 1999 and that infamous moment when Arsenal striker Kanu, galloping forward in a way that only he could, passed a ball through to Marc Overmars to score the winning goal in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield United. There was such an uproar that Arsene Wenger felt obliged to offer a replay which Arsenal duly won, would he have been so generous had it been against Manchester United, we’ll never know. There is countless other examples, including that of Luiz Adriano, who after scoring for Shakhtar Donetsk against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League from what should have been uncontested dropped ball, found himself handed a one game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct.

This issue continues to evolve, highlighted most recently in a game featuring Arsenal once again. With 20 minutes to go and the scores level Arsenal were on the attack with Chelsea midfielder Ramires down in the centre circle, the ball was at the feet of Aaron Ramsey who, clearly unsure what to do, decided to kick the ball out. A decision that brought a handshake from opposition midfielder Frank Lampard but raised the ire of Olivier Giroud and a number of his teammates who believed Ramsey had thrown away a potential advantage in one of the biggest games of the season. Was Ramsey right to do what he did? And to that matter is it right that it should fall into the hands of the players to make that decision?

Well I think the answer should be a resounding no, in today’s footballing climate where going down injured is employed more as a tactic to break up play and time waste as opposed to the occurence of an actual injury. Why should a player place his trust in the fact that another player is not ‘at it’ for want of a better term. We’ve seen it hundred’s of times before, a player goes down, the ball gets played out and minutes later the he is running about at the peak of his powers without a physio even entering the field of play. It’s frustrating to watch and I’d imagine equally frustrating to play alongside as well.

Perhaps the referee should intervene, they already have the right to stop the game for a head injury why not expand that remit to include any injury that they see worthy of a stop in play? Surely a better idea than player intervention but on deeper contemplation still subject to the same fundamental flaws that are a result of a member of either team kicking the ball out of play. Well, except in this situation there is the added pantomime of the player being guided off the pitch only to be waved back on seconds later whenever it takes the official’s fancy.

Then there’s the third option, we don’t stop play at all. I’m not a heartless man, I’m just a man who is fed up of games being interrupted because a player who has got a blade of grass stuck up his nostril is dealt with in the same manner as a player who has torn a ligament or broken a bone. Now generally I’m not an advocate of rules of other sports being transferable to football. I think the addition of a video referee would be a step too far, taking away some of the controversy that we as football fans thrive on, and that sin-binning in a football context would not be as effective as a deterrent as it is in ice hockey and rugby. With that said the method in which players are treated during a game of rugby could and should be implemented in the football matches of today.

For those unfamiliar of the procedure when a player goes down but the game continues and a physio comes on to the field of play to administer treatment when and where required. If the injury is serious then a communication is made to advise of such and the game is stopped.

None of these actions require new technology, they would reduce gamesmanship and time wasting, stop the needless to and fro from the touchline of players and, in theory, as an action it is instantly implementable. I say ‘in theory’ as there would still be a bit of working out to do in relation to such a change. For example if a player is being treated on the field of play do they become inactive? I would suggest they would, meaning that if a defender is lying stricken they can’t play an opponent onside whist at the other end a striker can’t resurrect themselves suddenly whilst realising that they are clean through on goal.

As a resolution it’s not perfect, a first draft of any proposal is testament to that. When a foul is given and there is a natural stop in play then bring the physio on and let treatment be given but don’t then make the victim of the foul traipse off the pitch because you made someone else who was chancing his arm fifteen minutes earlier do the same thing. Like many things in football the best resolutions involve the mythical concept of common sense but until such time arrives in that the myth becomes a reality I think those with the ability to do so should empower themselves to ensure that yet another one of football’s more annoying foibles doesn’t continue to blight the game that we love.