A Villainʼs Charter?

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 8th 2014)

A Clean Slate

This week the Championʼs League and Europa League will reach the business stage of deciding which teams will continue in the knock-out phase, drop down to the Europa League, or finish their participation in either competition. Soon the consequences of a rule change on carried over yellow cards will bite.

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Prior to the start of this seasonʼs tournaments UEFAʼs General Secretary Gianni Infantino explained the reasoning behind European Footballʼs governing body taking the decision to follow FIFAʼs lead to give players a clean slate for the final stages of the Championʼs League and Europa League for the current season. Like the World Cup yellow cards will be wiped clean at the quarter-final stage.

UEFA says it wanted to avoid the risk of top players being suspended for the latter stages of the competition. But does it? The World Cup-winning French midfielder and current Strategic Advisor of Greek champions Olympiacos, Christian Karembeu told Empower-Sport that he supported the changes.

Of course”, Karembeu said. “This is normal. I think that … every player deserve to play final, for example, and I think itʼs logical to give the chance to everyone when you dream about the finals – you dream about it”! But will it?

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Villainsʼ Charter

But the flair players – the ones spectators pay to see – are the victims of the persistent fouling, the ʻenforcer tacklesʼ designed to discourage them from playing and much more besides. This leads to them getting frustrated on occasion and reacting.

Remember David Ginola trudging off the pitch unhappily after being sent off for elbowing Lee Dixon when Arsenal played Newcastle United in the Coca Cup as it then was in January 1996. “They wonʼt let me play football”, he said. And they hadnʼt. Dixon had been fouling Ginola throughout the match, ensuring that Ginola could not function and the officials had allowed it. Finally a very frustrated Ginola retaliated by elbowing Dixon. He was sent off. The referee had no choice, but as Kevin Keegan then manager of Newcastle observed, flair players were not being protected.

And then there are cards picked up for deliberate blocks or non-violent cheating. The deliberate hand-balls, the shirt-tugging to prevent an attack developing and of course the simulation all deserve cards and the full consequences, donʼt they? Wonʼt this change in the rules encourage players to offend more as the consequences for doing so diminish?

The recent World Cup was ruined by a combination of excessively lenient refereeing and this rule. The quarter-final between Brasil – the most persistent offenders – and Colombia was destroyed as a spectacle by the failure to enforce the rules of the game. This happened under the auspices of Luiz Felipe Scolari – a manager who once declared the ʻBeautiful Game Deadʼ and the man that also said he wanted his team to foul more. What did they expect to happen other than the anti-football inflicted on the world that night?

Foul and Fouler

Far from guaranteeing the participation of the top players, these changes rewarded persistent offenders whose job it was to prevent the most talented from playing football – the exact opposite of what these changes are supposed to be delivering. What did they expect?

Letʼs hope that the amnesty on suspensions will not be accompanied by a repetition of the ludicrously lenient refereeing that rewarded the cynical and dirty play that Scolari inflicted on a world hoping for Samba football. Was it coincidence that Brasil played dirty?

It was their game plan after all – one that was cynically adopted to stop flair players by foul means or fouler – and utterly predictable that this would happen to ensure that a mediocre team undeservedly reached at least the final stages of the World Cup. Ironically, this happened at the expense of a team that had inherited the mantle of Samba football.

FIFA could not have failed to realise that Brasil would play this way. A talented Chile side and an even better Colombia paid the price. It also put a target on Neymarʼs back that put him out of the World Cup. Letʼs hope it doesnʼt happen again in the Championʼs League or Europa League.

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The Beautiful Game

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 4th 2014)

RIP

Luiz Felipe Scolari once declared that the beautiful game was dead. He also said that he wanted his team to foul more. Tonight Colombiaʼs talented play-maker was hacked off the park with referee Carlos Velasco Carballo little more than a spectator as shameful so-called challenges went unpunished. Scolari got his wish. The beautiful game died tonight – RIP.

FIFA wanted referees to be more lenient so cards and suspensions didnʼt pile up. This evening the consequences became obvious. The Colombians noticed that their influential play-maker, Monacoʼs James Rodríguez Rubio had plainly been targeted. Brasilʼs tactics were for Manchester Cityʼs Fernadinho and Tottenham Hotspurʼs Paulinho in particular to prevent him playing by foul means – fair didnʼt even compute.

Neither Brasilian was even booked, let alone sent off as they deserved. Had they been shown the yellow card when it was warranted – after 14 minutes in Fernandinhoʼs case, the referee would have retained control and a potentially mouth-watering tie may have had a chance to blossom. Instead the prodigiously talented Rodríguez and later Barçelonaʼs Neymar were used as kicking bags.

Disgraceful

Napoliʼs Juan Zúñiga Mosquera is public enemy number one in Brasil now and that wonʼt change for a long time. He claims that his 88th minute so-called challenge was not intended to injure Brasilʼs talisman Neymar. The evidence proves otherwise. He kneed Neymar in the back with the ball nowhere near. It was a shocking and disgraceful challenge that deserves appropriate punishment – a long ban.

Zúñigaʼs protestations that he meant no injury to Neymar ring hollow. There was no credible effort to play the ball. It was almost certainly retribution for the treatment that Colombiaʼs talented attacking players had been subjected to earlier. Almost a fifth of Brasilʼs fouls – brutal ones – were committed to ensure that Rodríguez could not play.

They were meant to leave a mark and make him liable to be clattered whenever he had the temerity to try to play. This was anti-football at its worst. Brasil committed 31 fouls out of a tournament record 54 with Rodríguez the number one target in their sights. Fernandinho, Paulinho, Paris Saint-Germainʼs Thiago Silva and David Luiz and Championʼs League winning Real Madridʼs Marcelo all had a crack at him.

Anti-Football

Fellow attacking options, Fiorentinaʼs Juan Cuadrado Bello and Cagliariʼs Víctor Ibarbo Guerrero were also hacked to pieces. The trio had been the victims of almost a third of the fouls committed on their own in the first half. Brasil had clearly adopted a novel interpretation of the phrase ʻthey shall not passʼ!

And where was the referee while this carnage was going on? Velasco Carballo is an élite level referee in Spain. Ironically he has the reputation of a disciplinarian. His reputation will now be in tatters. After yet another foul had been committed on Rodríguez, the play-maker was deliberately prevented from taking it quickly.

Yet again Fernadinho was on hand. When he finally took it confusion reigned and Brasil got possession. There was no question of retreating ten yards or even trying to. Not a word of reprimand, let alone a long overdue yellow card emerged and later when Rodríguez prepared to take another with his sights set on goal the wall encroached again without consequences. With the spray available to prevent this, why was that free-kick not taken again? Why were the offenders not booked?

Ludicrous

It took over an hour for Velasco Carballo to brandish a yellow card – astonishing given the extent of brutal fouling adopted by Brasil in particular. Colombia committed 23 fouls themselves, but theirʼs was a reaction to the knowledge that Brasil had chosen to ensure that they would not be allowed to play football and the referee was content to allow them to get away with it. Eventually they retaliated in one case in a particularly brutal fashion.

While Neymar deserves sympathy and protection Brasil do not and they may yet pay a very high price. They are through, but must face Germany without Neymar – the man they built their team around. They had a plan to neutralise Colombiaʼs attacking threat by foul means and they stuck to it. They were allowed to do it by officials who lost control as early as a 14 minutes into the match.

Rudely Interrupted

Prior to the carnage Brasil took the lead. Fernandinhoʼs long pass to Neymar was intercepted at the expense of a corner. The Colombian defending of Neymarʼs corner was woeful to put it mildly. With just 7 minutes played Elcheʼs midfielder Carlos Sánchez Moreno switched off and allowed Thiago Silva an untracked run to the back post where he kneed it past Niceʼs impressive goal-keeper David Ospina Ramírez to give Brasil the lead. It was the first time Colombia had gone behind.

The Colombians did not play to their potential – they werenʼt allowed to. Brasil showed the ugly side of their game to render the potent Colombian attacking threat neutered. The first yellow card came when Silva impeded Ospinaʼs clearance and then put the ball in the net. Incredibly given the brutality that had preceded it was hardly a transgression in the greater scheme of what had gone before, but certainly a yellow card offence.

Normal Service

Before long it was evened out as Velasco Carballo shamefully booked Rodríguez for what was at best a minor offence as Rodríguez plainly withdrew his leg prior to contact if there was any. Adding insult to injury David Luizʼ fantastic 30 yard free-kick beat Ospina to give Brasil their insurance goal – one they would need. He was yet another who deserved a card for a brutal first half foul. Slightly before that goal two other major incidents happened.

A free-kick was taken and rebounded off David Luiz. A scramble followed. Atalantaʼs Mario Yepes Díaz bundled the ball in. It was chalked off for offside – a marginal decision. In another incident Thiago Silva looked injured. Unfortunately he was the culprit, yet another foul that warranted a booking – this time on Borussia Dortmundʼs Adrián Ramos Vázquez. That would have been his second and a sending off. It would also have sent a message to Brasil that they had to defend by fair means – one that should have been sent far earlier. Colombia began to retaliate. Cuadrado should have been booked for a foul on Neymar, but this was long after Rodríguez had been refused protection. 

Finale

With just over ten minutes left Rodríguez put Sevillaʼs Europa League winner Carlos Bacca Ahumada through on goal. QPRʼs goal-keeper Júlio César Soares de Espíndola, currently on loan to Toronto FC, took him out to concede a penalty. Luiz was covering, so Velasco Carballo decided that a yellow card would suffice despite denying a goal-scoring opportunity. Rodríguez kept his nerve to beat Júlio César and set up a nervous finale.

At least three Brasilians had committed enough serious offences to deserve sending off, but that did not happen. And then Velasco Carballo ignored Zúñigaʼs assault on Neymar. Undoubtedly, Zúñiga should have been sent off. Either the referee and his officials saw that and much more and ignored it or they missed it. As free-kicks were given, but not more for most of Brasilʼs transgressions FIFA cannot and will not act retrospectively. Zúñigaʼs offence is a different matter.

If Fernandinho had received the card he deserved then Velasco Carballo would have retained control and this match would not have disintegrated into a relic from the past. Velasco Carballoʼs failure to take and maintain control had sadly predictable consequences. Neymar was targeted too and he paid the highest price – an undeserved exit from the World Cup. His team are considerably weakened now. It could and should have been so different. Deprived of both Thiago Silva and Neymar, they face Germany in the semi-final.

RIP the beautiful game.