Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Controversy, technology and fair play

First published in The Grecian, 24 November 2009, Exeter City -v- Millwall

Love them or loathe them (and today’s opponents attract strong emotions of both kinds!) welcoming Millwall to St James’ Park tonight is the nearest to a guarantee of a tough, competitive game as you could possibly get – in this or any other division.

One of the few lower division sides to have made an appearance in top-level European competition, thanks to an FA Cup final appearance a few years ago, the Lions’ 2004 UEFA Cup dream ended disappointingly against Ferencvaros, losing 4-2 on aggregate in Budapest.

At that time Millwall were in the Championship and seeking to recapture some of their past football glory, which has sadly been mired in an altogether less desirable reputation based on the unseemly behaviour of some who have attached themselves to the south-east London side.

Now they are one of several illustrious teams seeking an escape route from League One, and they sit just on the edge of the play-off zone in seventh place. This means Millwall will be determined to take more points off Exeter City this evening, just as the Grecians will be keen to build on the good results and performances of the past few weeks.

Among the Lions’ achievements already this term is a 2-1 victory over title favourites Leeds United: a real declaration of intent for their continuing 2009-10 campaign. That said, Brentford, who we beat at home recently, managed a 2-2 draw with them, and City will be trying their best to go one better.

Though for a brief time I used to live on the edge of Bermondsey, I cannot recall ever making it to a game at the Den, or to Millwall’s new ground. But you certainly used to hear a lot about them in the area! The word ‘controversy’ has rarely been absent in their recent history.

In the 24/7 media environment, what happens in the span of 90 minutes is only a fraction of the time the modern game occupies in the public consciousness. Indeed, a millisecond of action on the pitch can produce hours or even days of coverage.

That is definitely the case with Thierry Henry’s blatant handball last week, which saw the Republic of Ireland undeservedly denied the opportunity of penalties against France for the possibility of a place in the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa.

Usually “the luck of the Irish” is something you would happily wish upon your favoured side, but there will not be many Exeter City supporters craving it right now after what transpired on Thursday night.

By the time you read this, FIFA will presumably have had a chance to respond to all the fuss, but no one is predicting especially bold action.

Just as it is unfair to judge Millwall entirely on the behaviour of a minority of their fans, it would be very sad indeed if the skill, ingenuity and inspiration demonstrated by Thierry Henry over the years was to be besmirched by just one mad moment. It is therefore in his interest, as well as the game’s, that he is suitably punished. My own view is that he should be banned from the group stage of the World Cup.

Regrettable as it is in the circumstances, I can see why the world footballing authorities would not accede to a replay request based on a refereeing error. That would very likely open the (legal) floodgates.

But where a misdemeanour of this seriousness has been clearly identified by the cameras, strong post-match redress is essential if the genuine attempts to re-instil fair play at every level of the game are going to be taken seriously.

What the France-Ireland incident also illustrates is that the to-and-fro debate about the use of technology in the top echelons of the game is out of touch with reality. The issue is not whether technology should play a role in sorting out on-field misdemeanours and controversial decisions – it is already playing a role. The real question is how to respond to that fact.

Even if FIFA continues to insist that regulating matches should remain firmly in the domain of officials for the 90 minutes (to avoid extensive disruptions, and out of regard for the evenness of the game at all levels, low to high), the truth is that they cannot – and do not – ignore television evidence afterwards.

If players knew that there would be really serious consequences for being caught out ‘after the fact’, not just a quick ban, fine or proverbial rap around the knuckles, it would hopefully contribute to more discretion and honesty on-field.

That’s certainly what we all want to see in Exeter this evening, together with another positive outcome for the Grecians and en enjoyable night for both sets of fans.

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