Controversy makes the football go round

Football doesn’t need technological gizmos to prevent its demise - heated debate is its lifeblood.

Duleep Allirajah

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My wife thinks I take football too seriously. She says I spend too much time watching, discussing, reading about and playing football. And then there’s my increasing devotion to Twitter. ‘You spend more time on your phone than you do talking to me’, she recently complained. Frankly, I can’t see the problem with that (our marriage guidance counsellor disagrees). She doesn’t get my football obsession but neither does she understand how I cope with the disappointments and dashed hopes. Yet the reason I don’t feel like slashing my wrists after yet another gut-wrenching defeat is, well, I know that football is only a game. I know it’s not more important than life and death.

The reaction to the two big talking points of last weekend – the phantom Chelsea goal and Ashley Young’s ‘dive’ – suggests that we as a society are losing sight of that distinction. Without a doubt, Martin Atkinson’s decision to award Chelsea a goal in the FA Cup semi-final, when replays showed the ball didn’t cross the line, was a shocker. But Emmanuel Adebayor’s melodramatic reaction typified football’s distorted sense of perspective. ‘They have to make something happen because it’s killing the league, it’s killing the FA Cup, it’s killing the game, it’s killing everything’, exclaimed the Spurs striker.

Killing the game? Really? You’d think that a man who survived a gun attack on the Togo team bus in 2010 might be less prone to hyperbole. Evidently not. Inevitably, this latest controversy has revived the clamour for goal-line technology. ‘I think the more it goes on that we don’t use technology, the more perverse it is looking for football’, declared players’ union chief Gordon Taylor. ‘In the interests of seeing justice is done and the right result… the sooner it comes in the better’. Now I have no principled objection to goal-line technology. If the goal-line gizmo is reliable and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game, I can’t see the problem.

However, it’s ridiculous to imagine that the absence of goal-line technology is killing football. If you look at every measure of success – whether it is attendances or TV audiences – football is clearly not dying. In fact, the game is positively blooming. Spurs fans will disagree but Martin Atkinson’s blunder transformed the game as a spectacle. I don’t like FA Cup semi-finals being staged at Wembley, not because it violates sacred football traditions, but because the iconic venue seems to overwhelm players and lead to over-cautious games. The first half of the Chelsea v Spurs semi-final wasn’t dull but it was hardly your classic blood-and-thunder FA Cup tie. The game was a little too measured and cagey.

The ‘phantom’ goal altered the dynamic of the match. Spurs seemed fired up by their sense of injustice. The atmosphere was suddenly electrified; the crowd volume inside the stadium was cranked up several decibels. Spurs upped the tempo of the game and took more risks. Suddenly, a game of chess was transformed into a passionate, end-to-end cup tie.

Emmanuel Adebayor might argue that his ‘killing football’ quote was not meant to be taken literally. It was exaggerated to emphasise the point in the same way that a player might exaggerate a tumble to win a penalty. Talking of which, the moralistic furore over Ashley Young’s theatrical fall in Manchester United’s 4-0 league win over Aston Villa further illustrates our tendency to take football too seriously. Young’s propensity to ‘go to ground too easily’ is widely seen as symptomatic of a diving culture which is corroding the traditional sporting ethos of fair play. Arsene Wenger suggested that diving is a bad habit which English players have learnt from foreign imports and has called for three-match bans as a deterrent.

Are we in danger of getting carried away? You bet we are. Young certainly ‘went to ground’ theatrically. Even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that the United winger ‘played for the penalty’ and ‘overdid the fall’. This is the second time this month that Young has been accused of diving. The penalty he won against QPR on Easter Sunday was similarly questionable. But bending the rules by exaggerating a fall hardly sounds the death knell of sport. Since the advent of professionalism, footballers have always sought to push the rules to their limits to gain an advantage. Diving and feigning injury might well be alien to British football culture, but we’ve always had homegrown forms of gamesmanship. Take, for example, the ‘reducer’ – a bone-crunching tackle early in a game that is designed to intimidate an opponent. Is this not a form of gamesmanship? Of course it is.

One of the reasons that diving is so frowned upon in Britain is that we haven’t fully rid ourselves of the Victorian belief that sport is an instrument of moral education. The advocates of ‘Muscular Christianity’ saw sport as a way of building character and inculcating values. Like the nineteenth-century public schoolmasters, we tend to see diving not just as a breach of football’s rules but as an immoral act. Consequently, if ‘simulation’ takes root in English football, we fear that the social fabric will start to unravel. If Wayne Rooney swears at the referee, we worry that this foul-mouthed behaviour will be replicated in school playgrounds throughout the land. Never mind spending too much time on Twitter, the moral outrage over diving is taking football seriously writ large.

If we eradicated refereeing errors through technology or stamped out ‘simulation’, would that make football better? I don’t think so. Football is drama not science. Controversy adds colour. It is part of football’s folklore. Geoff Hurst is-it-or-isn’t-it goal in the 1966 World Cup final, Maradona’s handball against England 20 years later, Clive Allen’s disallowed ‘stanchion’ goal for Palace – the pub debates still rage over these incidents. I don’t want a sterile spectacle cleansed of human error. I want to hurl abuse at the referee or scream ‘Get up, you tart!’ at a player feigning injury. Dispute and injustice are essential ingredients of sporting theatre. Controversy isn’t killing football – it is the lifeblood of football.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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