16 January 2013

Spanish Inquest: Seeing red

My Eircom SportsHub column

Why always me?

“We demand precision, consistency and neutrality, with just one small caveat; that it’s in our favour” - Andoni Zubizarreta
Such were the withering sentiments expressed by the former Barcelona goalkeeper in 2010. The issue was different; he was referring to the skewed and partial media coverage that plagues Spain’s football reporting. But the sentiment might as easily be applied to a more current issue; that of refereeing, another blight upon La Liga’s credibility.
The objective here is not to kick the leagues officials — though God knows, they’re deserving of a kick or two — but rather the circumstances they’re forced to operate in this season. In short, the vexed issue of official directives.
Discussion on refereeing, often heated, is nothing new. At times we demand nothing more than consistency; at others, common sense. But often as not, the two are mutually exclusive.
In England, this has been brought into sharp relief by Mike Dean’s red cards at the Emirates, the latter of which was rescinded to near — if not universal — approval.
Graham Poll’s column in the Mail is often illuminating on such matters. Referees are put under tremendous pressure not just by the glare of the cameras, or the speed of the modern game, but also by the mishmash of directives which are often hastily cobbled together depending on issue du jour.
Dean deserves sympathy, as Vincent Kompany’s red card fell under this umbrella, if not that elusive concept of common sense. The recent trend to allow no middle ground on simulation is another cursory example of well-meaning but ill-thought diktats. Suddenly it seems no longer possible that certain collisions can be neither a foul nor a dive.
But this wouldn’t be much of a Spanish inquest if we continue to tread this path, so let’s look at La Liga where — in certain instances — the law of unintended consequences has been taken to dizzyingly daft heights this season.
The LFP, the league’s governing body, declared a war on three fronts ahead of the start of the current season. Dissent, both from players and managerial staff is something I think we can all sign up to. The third prong, that of handball, is much more contentious.
That concerning player dissent, while sparking occasional controversies, can for the most part be credited as a success. When Sergio Ramos was awarded a second yellow for a crude challenge in last week’s Copa del Rey clash with Celta, his mouth landed him with an additional four-game suspension to that mandatory for dismissal.
In the heat of the moment, Ramos called the referee ‘shameless’ which, while not quite crossing the line of calling the referee’s honesty into account, brought with it a further four match sanction. As well as Saturday’s limp draw at Osasuna, he will miss a potential semi-final clash with Barcelona in the Copa.
Fair or excessive, it was at least by the book. Which brings us back to Zubizarreta’s words.
Naturally enough, a certain section of the press put forward the view that his punishment was conditioned by the crest on his shirt. Those doing so were put back in their box when the case of Espanyol’s Sergio García was brought up; in November the Espanyol forward suffered the same punishment in identical circumstances.
Then there’s the issue concerning sanctions applied to touchline staff. Again, in the greater scheme of things, this one seems a no-brainer. Whether it’s managers berating referees or screaming at hapless fourth officials, most find this a side of the game we can do without.
But here, we’ve seen matters taken to extreme degrees. As with any clampdown, there are casualties; and the opening weeks saw a spate of those. The problem is that officials have taken the directive as carte blanche to banish managers for rather more innocuous transgressions.
Simply questioning a decision, or asking for its rationale, has been deemed beyond the pale. Rather than being applied to those impugning the referee’s integrity, we’ve seen those with calm and passive body language being furiously pointed in the direction of the stand.
Indeed, in the whole of last season, we had a total of seven managerial sending offs. Only ten weeks into this, that number had been breached. That week, Rayo’s Paco Jémez became the latest, following a tame exchange. “This is becoming a dictatorship. How can you justify sending someone off for doing nothing?”
But rules are rules, and directives are directives. Even when the law is an ass. And this leads us to final theatre of this ‘war’.
Ball to hand? Hand to ball? Should that which is it let go routinely in other areas of the field be an offence inside the penalty area? Such matters inflame passions because, as with many refereeing calls, it’s a mater of interpretation. Except it isn’t; not in Spain, anyway.
The concept of unintentional handball is now an extinct species. The referee’s ability to draw distinction, to take into account context, has been eliminated. In its place resides a iron-cast certainty of singular idiocy — every handball is an automatic yellow card offence. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about an unfortunate midfielder doing his level best to draw his arm behind his back, or a defender impersonating a goalkeeper on the line. It doesn’t matter if the player’s already on a yellow. The result is the same. Every time.
So the next time you find yourself bemoaning a lack of consistency, remember; be careful what you wish for — because you might not like it when you get it.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

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