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.

Defining World Class

"courtesy of @8bitfootball"

“courtesy of @8bitfootball”

There is an old adage that is true across all walks of life, but is particularly poignant in the world of sport. It goes, ‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent’. But what does that mean? And with the topic being wholly subjective to personal opinion and preference how do we, as individuals, define the parameters to which the term ‘world-class’ can be donned upon a player. I’m certain somebody with more time and resources could make a fairly interesting book out of trying to provide a true definition but in lieu of those aforementioned gifts I’m going to try to do it in around a thousand words. Wish me luck!

Before I look at what world-class is I think it is pertinent to provide some context to my conclusions by defining the term ‘Form is temporary. Class is Permanent’. In my eyes, and remember this is just one man’s opinion, the magic of one moment whilst glorious and beautiful does not make a world-class player. Neither does a series of these moments sporadically appearing over a one or two year period. I would also suggest that for any players in their late teens to be dubbed as ‘world class’ without being prefixed or suffixed with word ‘potential’ somewhere around about it is highly unlikely, although not impossible.

For me, to be world-class, a player has to have a body of work littered with moments of outstanding skill, supplemented by both personal and collective achievements whilst possessing an almost Zen-like aura that demands the confidence of your teammates in every little thing that you do having earned the respect those who deem themselves man enough to stand up against you. What world-class should definitely not be is a catch-all statement for any player, especially a young player, who is billed as the next big thing, something that the likes of Adnan Januzaj and Ross Barkley have been lumbered with in this current season. They may prove to be in the future but at present they are nowhere near; but who is?

Let’s start by making things easy for myself. Lionel Messi is world-class. He’s a statistician’s wet dream, sending goal records tumbling and in this current season turning his considerable talents to the creation of goals over scoring them himself in a slightly amended role within Tata Martino’s Barcelona set up. He is already a human highlight reel of footballing excellence and has shown in countless Clasicos and Champions League finals that his level of performance is not lessened even when the skills of the opposition are at their greatest. There has been criticism levelled at him for the perceived lack of success in the blue and white of Argentina but his skills at club level, perceived by some as superseding international football asking of the modern game, more than make up for this and with a World Cup as close to home as it is ever going to be who’s to say that 2014 will not be his crowning moment.

So what of his perennial challenger for best in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, is he world class? Once again I think the answer would have to be yes, although not as decorated personally Ronaldo still has a goals and assists record that makes the mind boggle. He’s won titles and Champions leagues and in international colours for Portugal he is as close to a one-man team as you will get at the highest level, exemplified by the way he singlehandedly dragged his team to Brazil scoring a hat-trick just when it looked like Sweden had got the better of his nation in Stockholm.

Then there is his nemesis on that particular day, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Winning titles in Holland, Italy, Spain and now France playing for some of the most famous teams in world football. Often derided as being not as good as he thinks he is there is no question that he possesses an aura that demands your attention, and once he has it he is capable of some truly memorable things, would Messi or Ronaldo have had the audacity to attempt a 45 yard overhead kick, never mind score from it? The fact that on that playoff night in Stockholm that he too was moments away from dragging his team to what potentially could have been his last World Cup almost goes forgotten such was the performance of Ronaldo and although he may be at level just below theEl Clasico rivals he too has earned the moniker of ‘world class’.

Being world-class should not be solely reserved for those who strut their stuff in the final third of the pitch. For me the greatest player I have ever seen is Zinedine Zidane, and with a flick and a twirl he changed the meaning of the verb poise to simply read ‘Zizou’. The film, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is not only achingly beautiful from an audio and visual standpoint but essential viewing in understanding why he was so good. His symbolic walk past the World Cup in 20o6 after the head butt heard around the world perhaps tarnished the man but not the playing legend.

The captain of the eventual winners that year Fabio Cannavaro was another world-class performer. Diminutive by centre half standards he is rightly considered one of the greatest central defenders of all time as well as achieving the almost impossible for a defender by winning the Ballon d’Or. In Italy he was known as ‘The Berlin Wall’ so great was ability to make even the greatest strikers look like a Sunday league stalwart feeling the effects of the night before. Perhaps only Vincent Kompany currently has the ability and aura to do even a fraction of what the Italian did for the profile of central defenders in the modern game.

What about Suarez, Ribery, Rooney or Bale, surely they’re world-class? Some will argue they are but does the sum of their personal achievements to date even come close to comparison when stacked against those of just one of the aforementioned individuals? I don’t think so. Nor am I suggesting that the names I have mentioned are the only ones worthy of the title world-class.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian version in this instance, was a part of two World Cup winning squads with his performance in the 2002 final seen as redemption to the farce that was his appearance in the very same game 4 years earlier. Henrik Larsson, whilst spending the majority of his career in Scotland blew away those doubting his class with career defining spells at Barcelona and Manchester United and it would be remiss of me not to make mention to Barcelona once again and the midfield mastery of Spanish midfielders Xavi and Anders Iniesta. There will be a few more, but not many, and for each of these men all have individually contributed to the evolution of the game across the globe and in doing so forming the essence of what world-class should be. Not reserved for the best, or even the very best but for those that have helped form and continue to define footballing generations.

If you enjoyed this then maybe you will enjoy www.meatfilledpastries.com. My footballing adventure searching out the tastiest snacks at grounds across Scotland and beyond. The link is on the right hand side.