Monday, April 16, 2012

99 posts later, there are still lines being crossed...or not

Ninety-nine posts ago, What Would David Bowie Do? made its debut with a lengthy diatribe about England's ignominious departure from the 2010 World Cup.

It was an angry rant, with its bile composed of England's piss-poor performance in South Africa, their ejection by Germany yet again, by the fact it was written exceedingly early on a Monday morning and during an arduous daily train ride to a destination I was growing decidedly antsy about, and by virtue of me being in a generally foul frame of mind, the reasons for which are best left unmentioned.

Viewed from a better perspective, the root of my bateyness was the fact that during England's final 16 encounter with Germany, Frank Lampard's delightful 38th-minute chip had bounced off the German bar and across the line so far the ball ended up in a different post code. Millions watching around the world saw it cross the line, as did most of the 40,510 spectators inside the Free State Stadium. I missed it as I was, at the time, somewhere beneath the English Channel where technology has yet to find a means of relaying radio signals. As it transpired, I wasn't alone in missing it: Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda, his two assistants and FIFA's fourth and fifth officials had also blinked just as the ball crossed the line.

It is unfortunately circuitous, then, that WWDBD?'s 100th post should fall on the occasion of another refereeing howler, again involving a team featuring Lampard, albeit with the prolific midfielder being on the victorious side this time. Chelsea's second "goal" in yesterday's FA Cup Semi-Final against Tottenham is not one I, as a Blues fan, will be particularly proud of. But if I'm uncomfortable at the goal standing, referee Martin Atkinson should be hiding his head in shame at allowing such a comical decision to stand.

Larrionda is said to have exclaimed "Oh my God!" when he later saw a replay of Lampard's disallowed goal. I wonder how hard and jagged was the item Atkinson swallowed when he saw video of various Spurs and Chelsea players bundled together like newly-betrothed snakes as Juan Mata's shot bounced off the sole of Benoit Assou-Ekotto's boot, effectively still in play.

According to Harry Redknapp, the referee has at least copped to his mistake: “[He's] watched it now and says he feels worse than I do. I said, ‘I don’t think so’. But he says he feels bad," the Spurs manager said afterwards. “He knows he’s made a mistake and he says he’ll have a bad week as well.”

So here we go with wave upon wave of renewed calls for goal-line technology and shallow defensive comments about referees being "only human", and indeed some are. Some are also splendidly gullible.

The argument against technology, certainly, is no longer tenable. When there are so many cameras around the ground that players can be punished retrospectively for off-ball incidents, it seems nonsense that decisions can't be made instantly when a disputed goal is scored. Or not.

Introducing technology has nothing to do with messing with the traditions of the game or even challenging the authority of the man in the middle. It's just that the pace of football now, coupled with the level of scrutiny afforded everyone except the match officials themselves is such that without technology they are disadvantaged.

We shall never know whether, had the goal been disallowed, the 5-1 scoreline would have been any different. It's possible that Spurs could have rallied, and beaten Chelsea handsomely. England, had Lampard's goal stood, may have also gone on to trounce Germany (although only the most myopic England supporter would have expected that, given the team's abject displays in the three games prior).

The absence of technology to conclude irrevocably that a goal had been scored has left us, yet again with more questions about how good our referees are in another weekend of big clubs, big decisions and big mistakes. There also remains questions about the moral fidelity of players. Diving, "simulation" or just plain old 'cheating' has rarely been further from attention than as now. So is there a difference between Ashley Young winning his second penalty in a week through another challenge to Tom Daley as Britain's greatest diving hope, and a ball not crossing the line, the referee attesting that it did, and the player with a claim to the 'goal' wheeling away as if he'd just struck a blinder?

To be fair to Juan Mata, the rush of blood to the head after you've put the ball in the back of the net (or at least sent it in that general direction) will blind the player to all other rational thought. Wembley is a magical place, and it's not just English schoolboys who dream of scoring on its hallowed turf. Can you really blame Mata for celebrating having, in his mind, added his name to Wembley lore?

And what about John Terry - should he have offered to set Atkinson straight? His admission, later, that "I thought it hit me and stayed out" does beg the response "Well, why didn't you tell the ref, then?" but given the season Chelsea's players have had, least of all Terry, it would take a particularly unusual player to have not taken that "ghost goal". It's not, either, as if it killed the game. Spurs are made of stronger fibre than that, and the fact that they clawed one back via Chelsea's season-long gappy defence, shows they weren't - at that point at least - going to just put their feet up. Until, of course, tiredness crept in, heads dropped and Florent Malouda, of all people, poked home Chelsea's fifth goal, following Ramires' cool third and Lampard's spectacular fourth.

I'll take that 5-1 win over Tottenham, but in my heart I'll regard it as 4-1. It's still an impressive scoreline for a Wembley encounter. The only note of real discomfort is the small minority who chose to disrespect the memories of the Hillsborough 96 and Livorno's Piermario Morosini, who collapsed and died 31 minutes into his Serie B game against Pescara the day before.

Football is only a game. It has its flaws and imperfections, but it is only a game. Spurs fans will be smarting, but compared with an FA Cup Semi-Final played on April 15th, 23 years ago, they will at least be able to go on smarting about a poor piece of refereeing for the weeks to come, as opposed to mourning the loss of 96 fellow human beings who left their homes one morning to watch a football match, and never came back. And that is something no replay can ever explain and certainly no technology can ever revoke.

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