Thursday 17 April ~

There is no escaping stories about Manchester City. Last night they won the FA Youth Cup for the first time in 22 years. This has become big news because the winning team contained eight English players, as against one for opponents Chelsea, an indication perhaps, that our teenagers might not be as useless at football as has been commonly thought. City's owner Thaksin Shinawatra has received plenty of coverage too for his latest expression of disappointment at the team's progress, including the useful observations that “we have some good players but we need more” and “midfielders are the key”. Sven's side might seem set for City's highest Premier League points total but it would seem that the manager's job is on the line. If so, he won't get a chance to lead City into Europe next season, which could yet happen thanks to one of European club football's most absurd rules.

City are likely to be the Premier League candidates for Europe's Fair Play Award, which offers three UEFA Cup places. The team from the country with the best disciplinary record – with additional points awarded for good behaviour from fans and coaching staff – gets one spot, with the next eleven going into a draw for two further places. But the award is not what it claims to be. It's usually the case that the teams that are doing well receive the fewest bookings and so it is with the Premier League this year. City aren't the “fairest” team at all – they're actually sixth in the table. This was also true when City qualified for the UEFA Cup through Fair Play in 2003 when they were ranked fifth in the Premier League behind four European qualifiers. Not that they made the most of the opportunity. 

It seems unlikely that the faint prospect of a place in the UEFA Cup preliminary round would ever influence a player's decision whether or not to foul an opponent. Indeed, there is no evidence that the award has had any deterrent effect on the disciplinary record in any league. It is largely a reflection of the way football is played around Europe, and how referees interpret the rules. Anyone who watches matches in the Italian, Spanish or French leagues will be aware that referees in southern Europe blow for fouls and distribute cards far more frequently than is seen in English football, or further north – Scandinavian leagues habitually dominate these polls. “Fair Play” – a term which is also applied to an annual FIFA award – is a glib conceit from the world of advertising.

On the field violence can be addressed more effectively but it requires the enforcement of consistent refereeing standards. But that's all a bit complex. Hence the football authorities settle for banal slogans on banners carried by teams of schoolchildren that will be politely applauded then duly forgotten. The best proof that Fair Play doesn't work came at the opening ceremony for the 2002 World Cup when the crowd in Seoul, South Korea, roundly booed FIFA president Sepp Blatter whom they blamed for the machinations that led to Japan co-hosting the event. As the jeers rang around, Blatter stopped his speech to plaintively croak “fair play please”. Happily, no one took any notice.

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