Sunday, 11 July 2010


If there was anything good about the 2010 World Cup Final final (the redundancy is FIFA's, not mine) it's that we ought never again to hear anyone call football 'the Beautiful Game'. Odd that here in England, where they pride themselves so on their irony, they take so much of their own puffery literally.

In fact, the BBC's Gary Lineker was forced to argue that this mixed martial arts slug-fest, a cynical festival of fouls, ref-baiting, diving, and bad acting ('the pain in Spain lies mainly in the feign') was a 'good advertisement for football' -- solely on the grounds that at least the match wasn't decided on penalty kicks. Like arguing a military coup is a good advertisement for democracy becaue at least it wasn't decided by firing squads.

In the end the better team won, in the sense that the Dutch were forced to adopt their very cynical tactics in order to negate the dominance of the Spanish in midfield. But their tactics depended on the English referee Howard Webb's instinct to 'ensure a good game' rather than enforce the laws of football. This means the ref should not send players off early--DeJong's spinning chest kick was worthy of Ultimate Fighting-- and thus be accused of imposing 'his mark' on the game. Webb also avoided giving a second yellow card to any number of players, including Van Bommel's foul immediately after getting his yellow, which was worse than the one for which Webb carded him, and most notably to Pujols who tried to drag down a breaking-away Arjen Robben. Robben instead got the yellow for pointing out that had he dived Webb probably would have rewarded him, but since he didn't dive Webb let it go. Of course the yellow would have seen Pujols go.

I also thought Heitinga's sending off came after a dive, but by then everyone was so fed up it seemed just desserts for the Dutch. Webb also should have sent off Joan Capdevila for an extremely cheap-shot to the turned back of a player he thought had just fouled him. The English soccer word we are searching for Mr. Webb here is 'bottled'. Of course it is difficult when one team is playing like thugs and the other is whining and diving. And when you know how FIFA boffins are watching their beautiful game showcase.

We used to call this tactic 'penalty paralysis' when it was used by the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the mid 1970s. Their coach, Fred 'the Fog' Shero, had won in minor league hockey, where the game was somewhat more violent and less tightly controlled, and figured that the same tactics could now work in the expanded National Hockey League, with the more diluted talent base. In hockey fights, referees almost automatically sent both players to the penalty box, therefore your goon attacking the other team's best player would get both off the ice, even if the other team's guy simply held his arms up to protect himself.

More crucially, Shero realised that if you committed 'minor' penalties (ie, fouls) all the time, the referee could not call all of them, for fear of 'killing' the game. This was the dilemma in which Webb quickly found himself trapped--having dished out yellow cards, he couldn't go back for a second without changing the whole dynamic of the game. He was more concerned with keeping the game 'even' than enforcing its laws, and dug himself a deep hole doing it.

I couldn't help but thinking that this Dutch team must have got very tired of being compared unfavourably to their great sides who lost in the finals, both times to the home teams, in 1974 and 1978. My guess is they watched the 1978 final for inspiration, and decided to come out and play like it was 1978 again...and they were Argentina.

And it almost worked.


Frazzled B said...

I enjoyed this post and certainly look forward to reading more of your thoughts on sports.

Are you the same Michael Carlson who wrote last year's "Don't Mess With Texas" article on Nolan Ryan?

Michael Carlson said...

No! Who's he? I know there's an MC who's a sports photographer, but beyond that.....I have no problem with people messing with Texas