Punishing ineptitude rather than cynicism
5 March ~ Nemanja Vidic should have been sent off for his foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor in Sunday's Carling Cup final. Aston Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill, said it. Villa's players thought so too and their fans were convinced. Even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that Manchester United got a lucky break after the Serb conceded the penalty from which James Milner gave Villa the lead.
Well, that's received wisdom for you. According to the rules of the game, Phil Dowd undoubtedly erred by failing to at least caution Vidic. Yet the referee unwittingly gave credence to the notion that the law concerning fouls committed by the last defender is inherently flawed. Vidic was the last man and his trip on Agbonlahor prevented a goalscoring opportunity but it was clumsy rather than cynical, an instinctive reaction to stick a leg out once the ball had been played past him. Villa got their goal and while it may be pointed out that penalties are no sure thing, the same applies to the initial chance.
Football risks referees punishing a defender's ineptitude. If he runs the risk of giving away a penalty and being sent off for an honest attempt to dispossess an opponent, then a defender is forced to strive for unreachable perfection. Human error will always exist, so it would be of greater benefit if the authorities concentrated more on cynicism and how to compensate the sinned against adequately.
In April 1998, United needed to beat Newcastle to keep up with Arsenal in the title race. As stoppage time approached it was 1-1, and United were camped in Newcastle's half when Rob Lee led a breakaway. Clean through on goal, yet outside the area, he was pursued by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who mercilessly brought him down. Perfectly calculated, it prevented both a goal and a penalty, and saved the draw. Solskjaer walked but the free-kick was missed. Arsenal won the league, yet only by a point. A free-kick for Newcastle was not equivalent to Lee's chance and surely there was a case for a penalty to be awarded or, even more radically, allow the midfielder another free run at the goalkeeper. Solskjaer wouldn't have done it again if that had been the sanction.
This was no isolated incident. In 2002 Michael Ballack was hailed after Germany's World Cup semi-final with South Korea for intentionally halting a dangerous attack with a lamentable trip just outside the area. A booking ruled him out of the final, but he stayed on the pitch to score Germany's winner minutes later. Some hero.
By contrast, Ballack's compatriot Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down Samuel Eto'o in the Champions League final between Barcelona and Arsenal in 2006. Although Ludovic Giuly rolled the ball into an empty net, still the referee gave Barcelona a free-kick and Lehmann a red. Barcelona would have preferred the goal and, given that Arsenal's ten men nearly won the game, the decision favoured neither side.
Altering the rules as suggested would leave refereeing decisions down to personal interpretation, but they already are now – where one sees a last man commit a foul, the other spots a covering defender. Whichever way Dowd reached his decision on Sunday, at least common sense prevailed. Jacob Steinberg
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