Round 25 of the A-League once again highlighted a truism of our game and of most sports – rules get exploited.
Yet when this happens, we tend to direct our outrage at the exploiters, not the real culprits: the rule makers.
To a degree this is understandable because we like to cast the players and coaches facing the teams we support as villains (our yellow-card accumulating midfielder is just a combative player who occasionally mistimes a tackle; the other mob’s is clearly a thug).
Nevertheless, when we see cynical tactics continue – and remind ourselves that in professional competitions, people’s livelihoods might be at stake – rather than ask why they occur, we should ask why they’re allowed to.
On Friday night fans took to social media to label Perth Glory’s Diego Castro “a cheat” after he made the most of a challenge by Adelaide United’s Dylan McGowan with a penalty-earning dive.
But who could deny that there was nothing unusual about what Castro did? Players have used such theatrics for decades.
And they do it because they can give their team an advantage and can get away with it.
Perth was a goal down and its spot in the finals is looking increasingly shaky; the point gained by Castro’s penalty might make a big difference.
Moreover, Castro can dive with impunity. If a referee thinks a player is guilty of simulation, a yellow card can be given – it’s barely a slap on the wrist.
So surely the problem isn’t that players “cheat”, it’s that there are no real consequences if they do.
Most of us want fairness. But we’re also suckers for outrage and drama.
On Saturday Fox Sports’ microphones caught likeable Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold instructing one of his players, Josh Brillante, to get a yellow card. And Brillante did as he was told.
Why? Because he was one card away from suspension and, with two rounds left and Sydney secure in top spot, Arnold didn’t want the risk of players getting a suspension-earning yellow card when it would rule them out of a finals match. Clear the decks now.
Again, there’s nothing unusual here, except that Arnold’s instruction would normally be given behind closed doors. I actually suspect Arnie wanted to be heard knowing that it would spark controversy – he loves it.
And again, there’s nothing preventing that sort of cynicism. If you don’t like it, worry about the people that have the authority to do something about it rather than have a go at Arnold (though that, admittedly, is much more fun).
Football Federation Australia could reduce the chance of a repeat. A few years ago, UEFA (Europe’s governing body) upped the suspension period to two matches for players who received a yellow or red card “on purpose”.
But soccer is an international game and FFA is hamstrung in many other ways. For example, it can’t simply decide to make simulation a sending off offence.
And as the International Football Association Board (which is responsible for the game’s laws) meets only twice a year, and can only make changes when agreed by at least six of its eight members, it rarely moves quickly.
This has its advantages. While IFAB is far from perfect, the way it operates means that it’s less likely to make a decision based on the controversy of the day.
By the way, I’m not suggesting a red card for simulation is an answer. And I’ve often wondered if our game’s governors really imagine there’s a problem anyway.
Most of us want fairness. But we’re also suckers for outrage and drama. And that keeps us talking – and arguing – not just in the stands and in our living rooms, but days later when we meet in cafés or at training sessions with our teammates.
Some startling imperfections have not stopped soccer being a global phenomenon.
Perhaps they’ve even contributed to its success.
Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.
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