Fenno on Sport


In his last column possibly ever, Paul Fennessy exposes the lurid workings of Sepp Blatter’s unseemly enterprise and condemns Alex Ferguson’s recent behaviour

Cheats permeate every walk of life. Yet football bears the dubious distinction of consistently allowing them to prosper. Over the course of the past season, the Premier League has seen an unprecedented number of managers speak out against supposed refereeing inefficiency. Rarely does a week go by without one manager of the esteemed twenty clubs launching a foul (pardon the pun) tirade against an official. Last week Sir Alex Ferguson, Avram Grant and David Moyes all voiced such displeasure in interviews.

Let us be clear – officials are not idiots, nor do they purposefully get decisions wrong. However, the modern game has become so fast and frenetic that it is futile to impart decision-making responsibilities solely into the hands of a referee and his linesmen.

Football nowadays, whether people care to admit it or not, is a multi-million pound business. This fact alone ranks the decision to persevere with a system that affords the distinct possibility of human error influencing proceedings, as tantamount to folly of the grandest order. Therefore, something must be done. The players know it, the managers know it and I suspect even the referees would privately admit it.

Enter Fifa’s resident dunce – Sepp Blatter – an emblem of skulduggery and power-driven delusion if ever there was one. Blatter has consistently rejected the idea of utilising video replays for critical incidents in games.

However, Blatter’s argument is fundamentally hypocritical. During the 2006 World Cup final, Fifa’s baffling intransigence was temporarily assuaged. Retrospective video evidence was clearly used to send-off Zinedine Zidane, on account of all three officials failing to spot his blatant head-butt on Marco Materazzi.

Conversely, the France-Ireland playoff game was obviously not deemed important enough to warrant the interjection of video replays. This circumstance, of course, added to the tangible air of inequity which was first created by Fifa’s decision to retroactively seed the play-off draw, thereby ensuring the bigger nations would avoid playing one another.

More embarrassingly still, Fifa have recently attempted to placate their critics by piloting a pointless extra-officials scheme. During this season’s Europa League fixtures, a system was introduced whereby a referee stands behind each goal-line.

This decision proved predictably disastrous. The scheme was widely derided by players and managers and its ineptitude was highlighted in one game in particular. Despite the presence of five officials, they still managed to send off Fulham’s Brede Hangeland, when the offence in question had actually been committed by Hangeland’s teammate (Stephen Kelly). After this and several other anomalies, Fifa’s scheme was quietly abandoned.

As I write this column, the situation is growing more perilous. Last week, Celtic fans threatened to boycott their club’s away matches unless marked changes were made to the Scottish league’s refereeing system. Their actions were prompted by the series of poor refereeing decisions which their side have fallen victim to this season.

Moreover, Fifa needs to adopt video technology, or risk alienating not just the clubs and fans, but also the referees themselves. It is likely that less and less youngsters would aspire to such a position, given that it comes across as such an unenviable task.

And to cite one specific example, Anders Frisk – by all accounts a top referee – retired prematurely due to the undue level of abuse he received. This is just one unsavoury incident of many which could have been avoided had the requisite technology been in place.

Therefore, a set-up akin to the one in rugby union needs to be installed. One legitimate proposal would be to allow both managers to have three opportunities, over the course of the game, to consult the video replay if a referee makes a questionable decision. This would not affect a game’s flow unduly and would significantly reduce the possibility of mistakes being made for crucial decisions.

One counter-argument which Fifa delegates routinely cite is the belief that football’s format needs to be replicated from grass-roots level upwards. This is a rather flimsy criticism. As stated before, football authorities need to wake up to the fact that there is a difference between Sunday park football and the Champions League.

Another idea which has been muted is the substitution of referees who are performing inadequately. This concept is similarly unworkable. Regardless of whether they may be substituted, referees will remain human and thus, liable to make mistakes. The implementation of such a proposal would only increase the already considerable pressure on referee’s shoulders and would ultimately be counteractive to their cause.

In the twenty-first century, basic errors such as a handball goal, or a player being sent off owing to mistaken identity, are no longer acceptable. Consequently, by facilitating these cheats’ endeavours, Fifa is implicitly endorsing them. Until the situation is amended, then all the organisation’s pleas for ‘fair play’ will effectively ring hollow.