Category Archives: sport

Gary Neville and cheating in football

The Youtube clip shown above is taken from a Sky Sports segment in which Gary Neville discusses the issue of diving (ie cheating) in modern football.

Neville is an ex professional footballer, so it would be somewhat understandable if his views on this subject were nuanced.

However, as the piece develops, it becomes clear that not only does Neville think that diving/simulation is a grey area, but that it should actually be tolerated as part of the modern game.

Below, I summarise Neville’s arguments, and offer my own rebuttals. The idea that any form of cheating should be acceptable in modern sport is ridiculous. In fact, soccer is probably the only sport I can think of in which this debate is taking place.

The only other area is which this debate sometimes arises is in the area of performance enhancing drugs, where some commentators have argued for lifting bans on such drugs, so that a level playing field is introduced.

The fact that this view is held by only a tiny minority should indicate on far off the reservation football is when it coming to dealing with cheats.

Anyway, back to Neville’s arguments:

1. They’re not cheats

Neville reckons we shouldn’t called diving players cheats, because the practice is so “ingrained” in the game, that it would be unfair to label players cheats when everybody is doing it. Even the greater players, like Messi, do it, and they’re not cheats.

Wrong. To argue that cheating is not cheating if everybody is doing it is perverse. If a golfer took an air stroke, and knowingly didn’t count it, that’s cheating. If a cricket player dropped a catch, but this wasn’t seen by the umpire, and played on, that’s cheating. This is a simple matter of definition. If a player deliberately falls over, with the express purpose of obtaining a penalty, that’s cheating. It doesn’t matter how many other players are doing it.

2. If you don’t go down, you might not get the penalty you deserve

In the piece, Neville features a small number of clips in which players are fouled but who do not get penalties, and argues that those players were disadvantaged because they didn’t go to ground.

Soccer doesn’t feature televisions judges who can review decisions and plays on the field with the assistance of video playback. While this deficiency remains, there will always be an element of luck in the decisions of the referee, which most commentators, managers and players acknowledge will even itself out of the course of the 40-50 games a professional team will play during a season.

To extend Neville’s argument to its logical conclusion, every player should dive for every tackle, anywhere on the pitch, in case not doing so results in them not getting a free if the referee misses the foul.

3. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t

This is actually a quote from a statement issued by the PFA, which features in the piece, and which Neville endorses.

The argument here is that with so much on the line, if a player passes up an opportunity to gain his team an advantage, even if that means cheating, the player is exposed to vilification from his club and the club’s fans.

That’s probably true, but its only true because cheating is accepted as part of the game. If clubs and players were to take a lead on this, and turn the tables, so that vilification arose from cheating, rather than not cheating, this issue would disappear.

Other sports seem to manage just fine in this regard. Has any rugby, GAA or cricket player even been vilified for not cheating?

4. Introducing retrospective punishment would result in chaos

Neville makes two points in relation to the idea that you could ban players retrospectively when video evidence clearly shows that they have cheated.

Firstly, he says that because the practice is so widespread, bans would be so numerous that it would undermine the League.

That’s complete pants. If players knew that it was likely they would get a ban for cheating, they wouldn’t cheat, so there would be no bans. Neville should look up the meaning of the word “deterrent”.

Secondly, Neville argues that if you punish players retrospectively for getting penalties they weren’t entitled to, you will also have to do something about players who didn’t get penalties they were entitled to, which is totally impractical, as you can’t re-stage games so that a penalty that wasn’t awarded the first time can be awarded.

Again this is pants. We already have a situation in which officials makes mistakes, and no action is taken, and as noted earlier, it is accepted that these erroneous decisions even themselves out over the course of the season.

Neville is simply creating a problem where no problem exists, in order to add weight to his general thesis.

As noted at the start, it is to be expected that ex-players will have slightly different views on this subject than fans.

However, when you see someone like Neville mounting a defence of what is self-evidently indefensible, it can be supposed that such views are not uncommon among players, managers and club owners.

If that’s the case, it leaves little hope that anything will be done about soccer’s cheating epidemic in the near future.

Is the World Cup heading the way of the FA Cup?

Marco Tardelli famous celebration after scoring in the 1982 World Cup Final. Are iconic images likes these to become a thing of the past?

Marco Tardelli’s famous celebration after scoring in the 1982 World Cup Final. Are iconic images likes these to become a thing of the past?

I can’t remember the last time I watched the FA Cup Final. Over the last 15 years, it’s outcome has become a distraction rather than event, the result of which you come across by chance rather than seek out, like the result of a horse race or some golf event in the Middle East.

It wasn’t always so. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the FA Cup Final was a red letter day in the domestic football calendar. You got up early to prepare for it. The entire schedule of BBC Grandstand was devoted to it. Celebrity fans came into the studio and had penalty shootouts, cameras followed the teams through their pre-match meals and on to their buses, there were outtakes of the teams performing their songs on Top of the Pops, and on one occasion, a special episode of Jim’ll Fix It was interwoven into the schedule in which one young fan got to deliver the match ball to Wembley Stadium.

It was pure carnival, and by the time the game kicked off at 3pm, you were breathless with anticipation.

The games rarely disappointed either. I can remember Mick Mills drinking a bottle of milk whilst being interviewed after Ipswich beat Arsenal in 1978. I can remember Alan Sunderland clasping his hands in prayer after getting on the end of Grahame Rix’s wonder cross in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat of Manchester United in 1979. I can remember Steve McKenzie’s 25-yard volley for Manchester City against Spurs in 1981, which is still one of the best goals I’ve ever seen, even though that match is generally noted for Rickie Villa’s mazy dribble through the heart of the City defence to score the winner.

During a period of 6-7 years, it was as if every final was the greatest game of football ever played. By the end of the 90 minutes, and on several occasions, 120 minutes, you were on some sort of natural high, the only antidote to which was to go outside and started kicking a football off the garage wall for 2 hours.

Then, later in the evening, you’d settle in for Match of the Day, and relive the day in mellow satisfaction, savouring the monosyabllic interviews with the key players as they sped along in their coaches with the trophy perched on the table in front of them.

And then it all just went a bit flat.

Manchester United, who hadn’t been a regular final partcipant in several years, starting showing up and turning in clincal performances, like beating Brighton 4-0 the 1983 final replay. There were a couple of other decent finals in the late 1980s, but then from 1994 through to 2000, which was the same period in which the Premiership began to grow in stature, we had a series of finals in which the only the winning side scored.

Then, Wembley was closed, and the final moved to the Millenium Stadium for 6 years, which removed more of the gloss. Manchester United’s Champions League victory in 1999 had also had a dramatic impact on english football at this time, in that the top flight teams were now focusing on it more, leaving less bandwidth for making a decent fist at winning the FA Cup. In 2000, Manchester United didn’t even contest the competition, despite being holders, preferring instead to participate in the FIFA World Club championship.

The stars of the FA Cup Final also began to change. The heroes of past were local boys: Trevor Brooking, Norman Whiteside, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Andy Gray. The heroes of the modern FA Cup were chic Italians (Roberto Di Matteo), surly Frenchmen (Eric Cantona) and athletic Africans (Didier Drogba) none of whom seemed to regard the FA Cup Final in the same esteem as their English and Irish counterparts.

By the time the final returned the new, and far less iconic, Wembley in 2007, it’s star had well and truely dimmed, and a drab final between Chelsea and Man United didn’t do much to reverse the trend. The 2008 final, between also-rans Portsmouth and Cardiff, was another drab 1-0 affair, by which time the prestige of the FA Cup Final was buckled beyond repair.

It was all a bit sad really, like mislaying some sovenir of your childhood, and what is worrying now is that the World Cup seems to be heading the same way.

In the past, the World Cup had always been insulated from the sort of influences that killed off the FA Cup as competition of any real significance.

It was held during the summer, so there were never any other competitions competing for the attention of players and fans. No other competition comprised so many teams, it only rolled around once every 4 years, it felt new and refreshed, with a new host country, and new rising star, a new surprise team, and generally a new winner.

Every competition also seemed to feature a least one wonder game, in which 2 teams left their blood and guts on the field. Who can forget the the 1982 semi-final between France and Germany, the 1986 final between Argentina and Germany or England versus Cameroon in 1990?

The 1994 competition in the US was a something of a speed bump, during which OJ Simpson diverted the attention of the US media, and we had our first final to be decided by a penalty shoot-out (Diana Ross missing a penalty in the opening ceremony didn’t help either), but in 1998, the fairy tale of France and Zinedine Zindane winning the competition on home soil restored our faith. 2002 in Japan and South Korea was a novel affair, and in 2006, Germany organised an excellent competition which although not notable for any particular match, featured some of the best football across the entire competition that we had seen in several decades.

Then came South Africa in 2010. From the word go, with 50,000 vuvuzuelas blocking out the traditional noise of the crowd at the opening match, it just didn’t feel right. After a couple of days, we started seeing empty seats at out of the way stadia, which was unheard of in previous competitions. The failure of the host nation to qualify for the second round was yet another setback, and when the final African participant, Ghana, were robbed of their place in the Semi Final by a cheating, cheering Luiz Suarez, the sparkle of the competition seemed to fade away completely.

The final, between the Netherlands and Spain, never really had the potential to inspire either. In fact, it probably did even more damage to the memory of the competition, in that it was most notable for the Dutch fans booing referee Howard Webb as he received his medal, after he refused to award the Dutch a late free-kick, despite the Dutch team having attempted to hack the more talented Spaniards to pieces for the previous 85 minutes.

There was something missing in terms of the star players too. The likes of Zico, Platini, Maradona and Zindane had been the greatest players of their time, and had always showed up with great performanes when they played in the World Cup, but in 2010, the world’s supposed greatest players, Lionel Messi and Christiano Reynaldo scarely cobbled together a decent performance between them. Messi’s failure to even score a goal in the 2010 World Cup is particularly notable.

All of this could of course be just a blip. 2010 was the first World Cup to be staged in Africa, and like the 1994 competition in the US, it may well be that the competition just didn’t travel well.

But what is worrying now is that the next 3 World Cups don’t hold out much promise of redemption.

The 2014 staging in Brazil should on paper be a fantastic World Cup. Brazil is the spirtual home of football, and the country knows how to party, which would seem to be a good start.

But Brazil is also a country in political turmoil, which has somehow managed to lumber itself with hosting both a World Cup and Olympics in the space of 2 years, which has left many Brazilians wondering if the billions of dollars being spent on the World Cup could not be better used elsewhere. How and if this will contaminate the competition itself remains to be seen, but it does not bode well that certain teams competing in the recent Confederations Cup didn’t even want to leave their hotels.

Then, in 2018, we’re off to the vast expanses of Russia, where players and fans will have to take 4-5 hour flights between venues. In 2016, we will also have had the first 24 nation European Championships in France, which raises the question as to what appetite the average football fan, or European players, will have for another 32 nation tournament in the same continent 2 years later.

The real test will however be 2022, when, after another 32 nation European Championships in 2020, the World Cup heads to Qatar. Nobody in FIFA seems to have figured out yet how a football competition can be played in temperatures of 40C+, on rock hard pitches, in a country where you can only buy a pint in a Luxury hotel, but that hasn’t stopped FIFA awarding the competition to the Qataris anyway. Sepp Blatter has suggested that the competition be played during the winter, but then again, Sepp thinks that the absence of goal line technology in football, and the inevitable controversies it produces, is all part of the fun of the game.

The appeal of the World Cup is therefore in for a real trial over the coming decade, both for fans and players. The FA Cup faced a similar trial 20 years ago, and deflated like a 3 week old party balloon. I fear the World Cup is in for a similar experience. Prestige is something that is hard won, easy to lose, and virtually impossible to recover.

A vanishing team, but not for want of money

Pulling pints and laying bricks instead of togging out.

Pulling pints and laying bricks instead of togging out.

In an address to the Leitrim Supporters Club earlier this year, one of the Leitrim Senior Football team’s co-mangers, Brian Breen, appealed to attendees to help members of the of the current senior panel find employment.

He specifically referred to 6 or 7 players who were currently without work, and at least 1 or 2 who had indicated they may have to leave the panel.

This is nothing new for the team. In 2011, the Irish Independent reported that only 1/3rd of the the Leitrim Senior panel who had gathered in 2010 were still on the panel.

The continuing drain of players has become more and more evident in the team’s performances. Leitrim remain rooted at the bottom of Division 4 of the Allianz Football league, and have still never managed to win 2 back to back games in the Senior Football Championship.

Like most Irish men, I played Gaelic games in my youth, and was a member of my local club.

These days, my interest is in other sports. I have a passing interest in GAA, but I am not a passionate GAA supporter, and I do not claim to understand the deep-rooted traditions of the GAA.

However, I do retain some sense of logic, and can see very little logic in what is currently happening to the Leitrim Senior Football team.

Over the last 10 years, no effort has been spared in investing in GAA facilities in Co. Leitrim.

€3m was spent on a new stand at the county ground, €2m was spent on a state of the art training facilities, and considerable sums have been invested in club facilities through grants from the Sports Capital Fund and local fund raising.

Additionally, the Connacht Council has raked in millions of euro from gate receipts at Connacht Senior Championship games, and the GAA itself has been the beneficiary of considerable transfers from the FAI and IRFU from leasing Croke Park for soccer and rugby games.

All of this revenue has been retained within the GAA organisation, and invested in either the day to day running of the organisation or facilities.

That’s all well and good, but a well run organisation and top notch facilities is of little value if the GAA’s most valuable resource, its best players, are laying bricks or pulling pints in Sydney or New York instead of togging out for their county team.

Employment in Leitrim is a very scarce commodity. An appeal to the supporters of Leitrim GAA to help find work for players is well-intentioned, but when most of the supporters themselves are struggling to make ends meet, its unlikely to bear any fruit. Similar appeals have been made before, and nothing has changed in the general decline in the talent available to the management team.

Conversely, there are thousands of people in Leitrim who are willing to pay money to watch the county’s best players in action. Granted, the gate receipts and sponsorship that are available to a small county like Leitrim are not going to provide a full time income to a panel of players, but even the payment of a small appearance fee might be the difference between a player emigrating or not.

Of course, to suggest that a player be paid for togging out for a GAA match is to many the moral equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the Sam Maguire.

Apparently, putting €200 euro in a players pocket as he leaves the dressing room will destroy the organisation, whereas the combination of paying his manager, putting a brand name on his jersey, selling advertising hoarding around the pitch, and charging a local radio station or RTE money for the rights to broadcast the game will not.

Like I say, I am not a die-hard GAA supporter, and perhaps I don’t understand the complex fabric of the GAA and its relationship with Irish society.

All I can comment on is what I observe, and as things currently stand in Co. Leitrim, your chances or pulling on the county jersey are far more influenced by your employment status than your ability to play the game.

There isn’t any logic in that, no matter what traditions you hold dear.

10 reasons why American Football is better than Soccer

Unlike in soccer, American Football match officials can review key plays on the spot to ensure they made the right decision.

Unlike in soccer, American Football match officials can review key plays on the spot to ensure they made the right decision.

SuperBowl 47 rolls around next week, which means American Football will find its way into the sports pages of European media outlets. This generally gives rise to a certain amount of commentary about the sport, much of which is characterised by bewilderment at the popularity of the sport in the US.

Comments such as “there are more players on the side line than on the pitch”, or “the game lasts for 60 minutes but takes 4 hours to play” are pretty common, and even among sportwriters themselves, as much attention is given to the fluff like the Half Time show and the cost of commercials as to the actual matchup between the teams involved.

This is unfortunate, as American Football is a fascinating sport comprising an immense array of skill, strategy and psychology, which regularly yields up wonderfully tense and exciting sporting contests.

As a long time fan myself, I thought I’d offer up a little taster for the uninitiated, by comparing American Football to the sport we are most familiar with in Europe, soccer.

In listing these reasons, I’ve deliberately stayed away from comparisons between the physical nature of the sports, and the skills involved in playing them, where comparison will always be a matter of conjecture, and focused instead on the rules, norms and structure of the sports, which are more factual.

1. Cheating hasn’t become part of the game

Whether or not American Football players have more moral scruples than soccer players is debatable, but one thing is for certain, its much harder to cheat in American Football, which seems to result in fewer players attempting to do so.

Simulation, feigning injury, deliberate handball and time wasting are all practically unheard of in American Football, while pervasive in soccer.

2. American Football isn’t dominated by a small group of cash rich clubs

Because American Football incorporates a Draft system, in which the weakest teams in any given year get first pick on the best new players coming out of the college football system, no team can every dominate the sport in the way that certain European soccer clubs have over recent decades.

3. Players respect the officials

The sight of a player, or a group of players, berating an official in American Football is very rare indeed, and where it occurs, the penalty is pretty severe: a 15 yard penalty and possible elimination from the game, which is more or less the same punishment you receive for attacking another player with your helmet.

4. Key decisions are assisted by technology

How many times have we seen the outcome of soccer matches decided by officials getting the call wrong on a key play, where they’ve awarded a penalty where they shouldn’t have, or where they have disallowed a goal they shouldn’t have?

This simply doesn’t happen in American Football. Coaches have the right the challenge official decisions, wherein the referee can then refer to video technology to confirm their decision. It means that while not every fan can go home happy, they can at least go home without feeling cheated.

5. There is no time wasting

In American Football, when the ball is no longer in play, due to either having gone out of play, or a play breaking down, the game clock is stopped. That means players can’t gain any advantage by spending longer than usual setting up a particular passage of play, like they do in soccer, with a goal kick, or a throw in.

In an American Football game, other than for the 40 seconds that the Quarterback is allowed to set up each consecutive play, the ball is in play for the full 60 minutes of each game.

(There are no ball boys either, or ball men, and there is more than one ball, so lying on top of the ball on the sideline isn’t really worth your while.)

6. The governing body of American Football is not corrupt

Its unlikely the SuperBowl will be played in Qatar any time soon.

7. There is only one competition

In Europe, most successful soccer clubs will participate in 3-4 competitions during the year, resulting in lots of drab, pedestrian matches played out between teams that don’t include the clubs best players.

This doesn’t happen in American Football. There is one competition, that runs over a period of 20 weeks, with one prize, which every teams competes in to the best of their ability.

8. There is always something to play for

Because of the way the SuperBowl Championship is structured, where teams are ceded on the basis of how many games they have won and lost, rather than on points, and where higher ceding confers home field advantage during the playoff phase, there is nearly always something to play for in American Football games.

For instance if a team had only one regular season game left to play, and had already won 15 out of its previous 16 games, guaranteeing quantification for the playoffs, they would still have an incentive to win their last game, to guarantee that they would play all their playoff games at home.

9. Scores must be earned

There are no penalty kicks in American Football. If you want to score, you either have to get the ball into the endzone or kick it through the posts.

In soccer, a player can be awarded a penalty for having his shirt tugged, which could decide the outcome of the game, even if this happened when he was 17 yards from the goal, on the byline, with 8 opposing players between him and the goal.

10. Games are not decided by penalty shootouts

If the knockout phase of the Superbowl playoffs, if a game ends in a tie, the 2 teams will keep playing 15 minutes quarters until one of them scores. Games are never decided on the basis of a goalkeeper guessing which way to jump when faced with a penalty kick.