I’ve heard it said that gamesmanship – acting outside the laws of football to win an advantage by any means possible – is differently perceived in different cultures. One man’s cheat is another man’s champion, depending on where you’re from.
Coming from Australia, where the spirit of fair play is sucked in with our mother’s milk, we are appalled by the antics of players from certain other cultures. Diving to win a penalty, feigning injury to get a player sent off, or to waste time at the end of a game is loathed in all right thinking countries but seems to be perfectly acceptable in parts of South America and Asia.
If an Australian player had carried on like Neymar – one of the biggest stars in the world – and flung himself to the ground to try and win a penalty, or rolled about like a shark had bitten him to try and get an opponent red carded, there’d be an outcry similar to Sandpaper-gate. He’d never play for the Socceroos again.
But do we hear any kind of recrimination from Brazil over Neymar’s antics?
(In fact I heard there was some, but a quick net search revealed nothing.)
An even worse look was the way the Colombians carried on during their defeat against England. Diving and overly rough play went on throughout the match and after Carlos Sanchez jumped on Harry Kane’s back and rode him to the ground, I was actually amazed when the referee pointed to the spot. So much has been let go during this World Cup, it’s as though the referees have been told rugby tackling is okay. (And don’t get me started on goalkeepers encroaching during penalty shootouts!)
A penalty was, of course, the right decision, and might even have been accompanied by a red card by some referees. Manhandling an opponent to the ground to stop them scoring (Kane could have been unopposed at the far post) is not a legitimate football action and might conceivably have been interpreted as denial of a goal scoring opportunity. Of course, such a red card decision would have required almost suicidal bravery – even if correct.
Sanchez (and his team mates) should have been grateful the referee let him off with just a penalty and a yellow, but instead of breathing a sigh of relief, they clustered about the ref and badgered him in a, frankly, unbelievable display of petulance.
This was gamesmanship, pure and simple. The Colombians had to know the referee was never going to reverse his decision for such a blatant foul. But every second they continued the protest was another second Harry Kane had to wait to take the penalty and stew in his own mental juices. At the same time, four or five of the Colombians took it turns to scuff and scratch at the penalty spot to possibly cause a miskick.
Four minutes this went on – appalling behavior, and pretty poor form by the referee. If he’d dealt more firmly with the Colombians in the first place (a yellow card for a head butt?) and started showing a yellow or two when the protests got out of hand we would not have had to put up with such outrageous behaviour.
The Colombians then doubled down by accusing England of cheating and Falcao accused the American referee of bias. Maradona, speaking in his role as a FIFA ambassador, suggested the result was a case of theft. In what crazy bizarro universe do they genuinely believe that they were more sinned against than sinning? And where is the commentary from their own country demanding the resignation of Pekerman for presiding over such a shambles?
There is none.
Is that because commentators simply cannot see the bad behavior of their own team, or is it because – as suggested above – that in some cultures, trying to win an advantage by any means is acceptable?
In all sincerity I have no answer to this question, but it’s a question that arises all too constantly south of the Rio Grande. Maradona had no qualms about using his hands (in both attack and defense) or taking mysterious potions to lift his game. Similarly, Suarez is happy to get his teeth into any sort of problem. These are brilliant, breathtaking footballers who do not need to resort to anything beyond their own natural skill to gain an advantage. So why do they do it?
Why do players cheat or try to deceive the referee?
Partly because referees no longer feel empowered to enforce the rules. The player cult of celebrity undermines their authority and even FIFA undermines their authority. The VAR does little to improve the correctness of decisions (especially the non-referrals) and does nothing to support the status of referees.
There is already a crisis in some countries as fewer and fewer youngsters have any interest in becoming refs – and why would they? With VAR, referees are being turned from authoritative game facilitators into clerks who have to refer anything important upstairs. What self-respecting ambitious kid wants to be a clerk?
Come on FIFA! Clamp down on gamesmanship and get rid of the VAR.
These two things are related and they’re ruining the game.
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.