Yet emotions shouldn’t be allowed to override rules
27 April ~ You know it’s spring when the headlines are full of cup final suspensions. Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s Josh Meekings was red carded 24 hours after the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Celtic just over a week ago. The SFA’s first ever video citation for handball created a furore, with even Celtic manager Ronny Deila hoped Meekings won his appeal against his one-match ban. He did, in what was a new twist to a dramatic, emotional subplot which recurs at the end of so many competitions.
Roy Keane drank his way through Manchester United’s preparations for the 1999 Champions League final. Fouling Zinedine Zidane in the semi-final defeat of Juventus took him over the disciplinary points total. His 2002 autobiography describes the hollowness felt by himself and Paul Scholes, both suspended from the decider against Bayern Munich but staying at United’s Barcelona hotel: “It’s as if a glass partition descends between you and the players who are in the side. And you are on the wrong side of the divide.”
Keane’s famed lack of sentiment doesn’t stop this being a personal low, and one everyone understands. The semi-final red card, or the yellow suspending you from the final, elicits empathy for even the most unlikeable millionaires from even the most casual fan. It’s rumoured that the panel which heard Meekings’ appeal was swayed by the prospect of him missing his big day.
The last match without medals in any tournament can be fraught with desperation. Over-enthusiastic lunges, ala Paul Gascoigne fouling West Germany’s Thomas Berthold in the 1990 World Cup semi, become as likely as nefarious play-acting; Croatia’s Slaven Bilic hit the turf to get France’s Laurent Blanc dismissed in Paris eight years later. Even in his Ballon d’Or year, minutes from the end of the 2003 Champions League semis and after putting Juventus 4-2 ahead, Pavel Nedved kicked out at Real Madrid’s back-tracking Steve McManaman. Without him Juve lost the goalless final on penalties.
“Gazza’s tears” in that Italia 90 semi become famous. Likewise, a track-suited Blanc stealing onto the pitch before the 1998 final for his ritual kiss of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez’s bald head. Yet France won that World Cup despite Blanc’s absence while Gascoigne’s England lost the semi-final. These suspensions test the character of both penalised player and team-mates.
Going 2-0 down at Barcelona in the 2012 Champions League semi-final second leg, Chelsea had captain John Terry red-carded and six others booked. They recovered that tie then, despite key suspensions, defeated Bayern in the Munich final. Keane’s Turin booking inspired him to transform the match. Germany’s Andreas Möller received a fatal yellow in the Euro 96 semi-final at Wembley but converted the winning penalty against England. And Michael Ballack was already out of the final when scoring Germany’s winner against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup semi-final.
Sponsors want televised showpieces to feature as many stars as possible. FIFA and UEFA duly tinkered with the suspensions system, wiping yellow cards after group stages and quarter-finals. But rules shouldn’t brook sympathy. Disciplinary procedures should be the immovable object by which players triumph or fail, ensuring emotions remain a reaction to the game rather than an arbiter of it.
But tell that to Gary Warren. Booked against Celtic last Sunday, he’s suspended for the showdown with Falkirk on May 30, just as he was for last season’s League Cup final. His central defensive partner Josh Meekings will be first to sympathise. Alex Anderson