Although I have been a football fan for nearly forty years, there are still a few things about the beautiful game that I would like to change. Despite watching far too much football, at least according to my lovely wife, there is still room for improvement in my favourite sport, though you would never guess this was the case when watching our friends at Sky Sports, who, to be fair, are the main reason why I can take in 2-3 (OK, 4-5) matches every week.
As people staggered their way through the twelve days of Christmas, I got to thinking whether I could find twelve areas that I would like to change to make the world’s most popular sport an even better spectacle. You’d better believe it. So, here’s my Dirty Dozen – a list of suggested enhancements for Sepp and his mates, which I’m sure they would welcome, as they don’t require anything as contemporary as using technology (even though every other major sport seems to have embraced the modern world with few problems), nor do they need any significant rule changes, just the application of existing regulations and good old fashioned common sense.
As they say on the best (and the worst) shows, in no particular order, I would like to see the following in the New Year. Funnily enough, many of the examples that I can immediately think of are from Chelsea, which in no way implies that this is a team of cheating, lying, hypocritical bastards, who would win a gamesmanship league every single year without fail. Oh, no.
1. Wagging a finger at the referee
This is done to indicate disagreement with a referee’s decision and is intensely irritating for the spectator, so God knows how angry it must make the ref feel. I would make this an automatic yellow card, especially as the wagging is no indication of whether the player is telling the truth. The worst offender is Chelsea’s Ricardo Carvalho, who usually shows us his dodgy digit after he has cleaned out an opposing forward and the ref has the temerity to give a foul against him. I have long harboured an irrational dislike of Carvalho with his musketeer’s haircut and his weird frame. I am unsure whether this is because his legs are too short or his trunk is too long, but what is undisputable is that he gets away with numerous fouls, so it’s pretty rich for him to complain in this way when one is actually punished.
2. Staying down, feigning injury
There has been a well justified media campaign to stop players diving, but less of a fuss has been made about the new art of players staying down after a foul, pretending to be hurt, in order to break up an opposition counter-attack. Although the rules have changed, so it is now up to the referee to stop the game in such instances, the crowd will inevitably whistle and scream for the opponents to put the ball into touch, so that their player can receive immediate medical assistance. This is hardly ever merited, but the player will milk the attention, gingerly get to his feet, grimace like a street mime artist, take a few hesitant steps off the pitch, only to return fighting fit seconds later. The absolute master of this ploy is Didier Drogba, who coincidentally is also a world-class diver. Only this week, we saw him lying prostrate in his area as Birmingham put the ball in the Chelsea net. Unfortunately, the goal was disallowed, as it would have been sweet justice if the Ivorian’s latest bout of play-acting had resulted in his prone body playing the forward onside.
3. Stealing ten metres on a throw-in
Virtually every time a full-back takes a throw-in, he will perform the same routine. Initially, he will simply walk down the touchline with a vacant expression on his face (not too difficult for most Premiership footballers), before coming to a sudden stop, which will allow him to look around the pitch (yes, your players are those wearing the same colour shirt as you). Then, he will repeat these actions, the only variation being that the walk is now stuttering, as if he is actually going to make the throw. Not so fast – it’s only the third run where he will actually release the ball. This pantomime will routinely gain his team ten metres, but if you are really good at this, like “Cashley” Cole, then you can occasionally secure twenty metres. Of course, sometimes the referee will spot the offence and send you back, whereupon the player will grudgingly back up, perhaps, two metres, still leaving his team with a net gain. When you look at other sports like American football or rugby, where inches are vital, this laissez-faire attitude is plain stupid.
4. Swearing at the referee
While I have been known to use industrial language, it doesn’t make it any more attractive when you see players abuse the ref in the foulest terms imaginable. There seems to be some sort of licence given to the better-known players, who are allowed to swear much more than Joe Average, so the likes of Wayne Rooney (“Wazza”) and John Terry (“JT”) are permitted to give the ref a mouthful without fear of sanction. I was going to say give them a “piece of their mind”, but that would suggest very little swearing, so went for “mouthful”, which also implies the spitting that invariably accompanies the invective. As the Premier League now contains so many foreign players, we are witnessing a new trend, whereby players curse the ref with impunity, as they are speaking in their mother tongue. I recently watched the saintly Fernando Torres constantly call the ref a “hijo de puta”, which is surely not that difficult to understand, but was apparently beyond the man in black.
5. Wrestling matches in the penalty area
Every (yes, every) time a cross comes into the penalty area from a corner or free kick, the sport suddenly changes from football to all-in wrestling, as defenders ignore the ball to concentrate on grabbing the striker’s shirt or even wrapping their arms around him. This is so blatant that it has become a joke. Very occasionally, the ref will give a penalty (or “pelanty”, as Chris Waddle would say), but the only way to completely stamp this out is to award a spot-kick every time it happens until even the thickest, dirtiest stopper (for example, everyone’s favourite tour guide, John Terry) realises that this “tactic” won’t work any more. Given that England have been eliminated from at least two major tournaments by climbing on opponents (Sol Campbell against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup; that man John Terry against Portugal in the 2004 European Championship), you would have hoped that the penny had dropped by now, but apparently not.
6. Screaming like a girl when fouled
Hands up anyone who has ever played football. OK, keep your hands up if you ever heard anyone you played with or against you scream like a bitch when they were fouled. Thought so. This only happens in professional football. We know that the reason the players do it is so the ref will notice that an offence has been committed, but just how useless do they think that the ref is? Don’t answer that. It’s particularly unedifying when a big bruiser squeals like a pig if he has been barely touched. Step forward (and fall down) the 6 ft 2 ins Michael Ballack, whose high-pitched Teutonic cry whenever he hits the deck is especially painful on the ears.
I think that this gesture is intended to demonstrate to all and sundry how close the shot was to being a wonderful goal, when fans usually interpret it as “How did that over-paid, hopeless pillock manage to balloon the ball over the bar from there?” It’s clearly a self-serving act, as the player bemoans his terrible luck (as opposed to lack of ability), while giving his best Victor Meldrew impression (“I don’t believe it!”). England’s erstwhile wunderkind, Joe Cole, is normally good value for money if you want to witness this phenomenon, but his Chelsea teammate, Nicolas Anelka, is no slouch in this department either.
Obviously we cannot ban fouls completely, but what annoys me is that there seem to be some players earning a living in the game who commit fouls every time that they make a challenge. Instead of being pilloried for being generally useless, bizarrely they are often lauded for their work rate, commitment and attitude. The least I would expect from any professional athlete is good work rate, for heaven’s sake. In addition, I would expect them to be able to time a tackle and make a pass, but the only contribution that some players are capable of making is to increase their side’s quota of fouls, yellow cards and red cards (though nowhere near as many as they deserve). My Hall of Shame includes Ricardo Carvalho (yes, again), Michael Brown (a journeyman who has hacked his way around the pitch for many clubs) and Phil Neville. Phil’s sibling Gary is now too slow to be able to foul as consistently as he used too, though he is just as ugly – Brothers Grimm, indeed.
9. Constantly caught offside
Even though FIFA have frequently tinkered with the offside rule to favour the attacking side, there are still forwards who are too idle or stupid to avoid being caught the wrong side of the defence. A couple of times a match is forgivable, especially if the attacker is “playing on the defender’s shoulder” and actively looking to exploit any advantage, such as little Mickey Owen in his prime (before he became more interested in horse racing), but all the time? Arsenal fans would agree with me if I suggested that the worst culprit at brainlessly straying offside, the all-time world champion, is that perennial waster, Emmanuel Adebayor. It was almost beyond belief last year how many times the dozy idiot ruined an Arsenal attack by wandering yards offside. Oh well, at least we got one good season out of the over-rated walking ego, before he effectively decided to go on strike, which appears to be one more than he will condescend to give Manchester City.
10. Wall not retreating
When a free kick is awarded, the defensive wall should be at least ten yards away, but this is hardly ever the case. If a ref ever bothers to pace out the distance, the second his back is turned, the wall will shuffle forward like a geriatric line dance. In South America, they experimented with an aerosol spray that marked the proper distance with the line somehow disappearing a few minutes later. Seemed like a very good idea to me, but for some reason it has not been adopted worldwide. Maybe Blatter thinks that a spray-can smacks of technology, which obviously can never be allowed into the game he rules, unless of course it’s called television, and that's only because it is one of the major driving forces behind FIFA’s growing revenue.
Or, more specifically, people talking about this theme, as in “all we ever want is consistency”. This is a line that is usually wheeled out by a less successful manager when he feels that his team has been the victim of a poor decision, so is almost exclusively used by old-school English managers like Tony “if the cap fits, wear it” Pulis, Phil “Tango” Brown and Sam “lump it” Allardyce. Well, if you’re so keen on consistency, why can’t your players pass the ball accurately more than twice in a row? Why can’t your strikers hit the target more than once in every ten attempts? Surely this concept should cut both ways, or is it just more convenient to blame the officials for the inadequacies of your pathetic teams?
12. Jamie Redknapp
Like almost every football fan I know, I’ve had it up to here with this unshaven, thin-tied, tight-trousered buffoon. Yapping like an excitable puppy that has just seen its first bone, he shouts out his opinions as if they’re enormously insightful, when in reality they’re banal, predictable and often plain wrong. Someone should inform him that it is possible for his cousin “Fat” Frank Lampard to have a bad game once in a while. My dearest wish for 2010 would be for fellow pundit Graeme Souness to take his obvious contempt for Redknapp’s lack of knowledge to the logical extreme and put in one of his legendary “reducers” on the former Spice Boy. Literally.
Much as I would love it (“really love it”) if these thoughts were to come to pass, it’s about as likely as Santa coming down the chimney, to use a seasonal comparison. Never mind, there’s still hope for us footy fans and I will be happy, so long as Arsenal win the treble, England win the World Cup and Hull City and Blackburn Rovers are relegated to the Championship – where their clodhopping brand of football belongs. That would be a genuinely Happy New Year.