Sunday, November 22, 2009

FIFA's No to Rematch is a Tough Pill to Swallow

As the media has reported widely, FIFA ruled last Friday that there will be no rematch. The decision, hard as it is to accept, is a correct interpretation of the rules. FIFA's rules give enormous power to the referees and make them the final arbiters of almost everything on the soccer pitch. According to the Laws of the Game, specifically Law 5, "[t]he decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final. The referee may only change a decision on realising that it is incorrect or, at his discretion, on the advice of an assistant referee or the fourth official, provided that he has not restarted play or terminated the match."

Given how quickly these match-altering decisions are made, it is foolish to concentrate so much power in one individual. Further, even if the referee is able to appreciate that he has made a mistake amidst all the brouhaha, he is not compelled to change his decision. The Law only says that he "may" change his decision. In addition, even if the other officials spot an error and bring it to the referee's attention, and all the spectators see that the decision is wrong, he is allowed to use his "discretion" and stick to his decision.

While there are strong arguments to give the referee the necessary authority to ensure that the game is not interrupted unduly and delayed by constant quibbling, this is a step too far. No human referee is immune from mistakes in the cauldron-like atmosphere that characterizes big matches, and giving them the aid of technology to get decisions right can only be good for the game. A system of challenges, perhaps with each team being given one challenge, which would be lost upon an incorrect challenge would be a step in the right direction. The referee would be required to look at the video replay if there is a challenge and the game would stop only for a few seconds. This disruption is a small price to pay for getting the decision right. If other sports can accept such innovations, why not football?

What then of Mr. Henry's actions? As the video footage clearly shows, he deliberately handled the ball. Law 12 is clear about the consequences: "There are circumstances when a caution for unsporting behaviour is required when a player deliberately handles the ball, e.g. when a player:
•   deliberately and blatantly handles the ball to prevent an opponent gaining possession
•    attempts to score a goal by deliberately handling the ball."

Should players take more responsibility for their actions? Would it make life easier for referees? The answer has to be yes if the expectation of sporting behaviour has to have any meaning. Yet, players resist at every turn. Even in that most gentlemanly of sports - cricket -  the great Australian wicket-keeper batsman, Adam Gilchrist, who has been known to walk when out despite the umpire missing the catch, is a lone exception. Footballers are no different. Players will try to get away with every violation they can unless FIFA takes the job of enforcing the sportsmanship norm seriously. Financial penalties must follow even after the match is concluded if there is evidence that a player has exhibited "unsporting behaviour." Since the sheer embarrassment of being caught out cheating on television appears to be ineffective, other avenues have to be explored. A code of conduct whereby players commit to putting their hand up and accepting responsibility for infringements might be one solution. If Mr. Henry had immediately gone to the referee and admitted to handling the ball, Ireland would not have felt so cheated.

It would be a travesty if everyone forgot about this incident after a few days and FIFA is allowed to get away with a technical interpretation of its flawed rules. Ireland and other nations must overcome the familiar problems of collective action and work to change the rules so that spectators and players are not robbed of a fair sporting contest. The Laws state that "No alterations shall be made to the Laws of the Game except in the Annual General Meeting of the Board and then only if agreed by at least three-quarters of those present and entitled to vote." If nothing is done at the next AGM, it is the membership, rather than the much maligned FIFA, which must take the blame.