Saturday 8 November ~
There’s a time-proven method of raising children that involves varying degrees of incentives and punishment, and which generally works quite well. The system of tough love, while encountering initial resistance, arguably ends up giving you better-rounded human beings, equipped for the vagaries of the adult world where you don’t often get what you want. But any suggestion that a similar philosophy might work for football players tends to be dismissed out of hand.
“I am convinced that if we imposed fines of €50,000 and two or three-game bans for diving in the area then it would make people think,” said veteran Spanish referee Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez in the wake of Stephen Gerrard’s tumble in the third minute of stoppage time that landed Liverpool a fortuitous penalty kick in Tuesday’s Champions League game against Atletico Madrid. In the civilian world, calls for harsher punishments have to be examined closely for political motives. In football, you can sometimes take them at face value. In the case of blatant on-field cheating, it’s hard to argue with a call for stronger sanctions, especially as a slow motion replay seen by millions of people seems to have no shaming effect when countered with the reward of a penalty, a goal and a shiny, cash-garnering Champions League point.
It’s clear from replays that Steven Gerrard went down dramatically on a minimum of contact from Mariano Pernia. But can the Liverpool midfielder really be blamed and slapped with a huge fine when the well placed linesman made such a poor call? Why not fine the linesman while we’re at it, and any fans that appealed for the foul? And what about cheating that went unrewarded? Would a player who was correctly cautioned for a dive also receive Mejuto Gonzalez’s proposed fine? Would David Ngog be punished for his unsuccessful attempt to reach a Gerrard cross with his hand a couple of minutes before Gerrard’s fall?
Still, given that we can rarely call on the Corinthian spirit of Robbie Fowler, of all people, who over a decade ago tried to persuade a referee in a Liverpool v Arsenal game to reverse a penalty award in his favour, then draconian measures may be the only alternative. You suspect that Fowler’s attempted act of sportsmanship (Fowler took the penalty, David Seaman saved, and Jason McAteer happily knocked in the rebound) now belongs to football history as much as any other lingering ethic from the days of amateurism. If you watch Gerrard’s fall and his fake cry of agony in slow motion and couple it with the numerous other cases of blatant simulation, then you may see the merit in Mejuto Gonzalez’s appeal for firm action.
Players and teams will moan, of course, as Fiorentina and Alberto Gilardino did last month when the player was banned for two games for “serious unsporting conduct” after scoring with his arm against Palermo. But will he or anyone else in Serie A do it again now that a precedent has been set and they know they can’t get away with it? As most kids quickly learn, if you don’t like the punishment then you simply don’t commit the crime. Ian Plenderleith