I watched a lot of football over the weekend: Manchester United versus Fulham, in which some Dutch bloke scuffed the ball over the line; Chelsea v Newcastle, a mid table clash between the fifth and sixth best teams in England; Stoke v Arsenal, in which a party of brave adventurers including at least one dwarf travelled to Mordor, failed to slay some Orcs and came home again; and, finally, a mugging in Liverpool (I know that’s not news, but this one was a footballing mugging, with the away team stealing an undeserved point).
There were many talking points from those games (including Wayne Rooney experiencing a nasty old gash; the usual bovine booing of Aaron Ramsey by the Stoke herd and Martin Skrtel demonstrating why you can never afford to be sloppy with an exposed rear).
But the incident that really caught my eye was Chelsea’s first goal in their 2-0 victory over Newcastle United.
It was scored by Eden Hazard from the penalty spot after Torres was deemed to have been tripped in the box by Newcastle’s sweetly named midfielder Anita.
The problem is that to me, at least, it was not a penalty. Torres jinked into the box and pushed the ball past Anita who looked as if she (sorry, he) was going to stick out a leg.
Anticipating the contact, Torres instantly tipped into the two-footed “Sniper*” fall and went down.
The only trouble was that Rita, after starting to dangle out a foot, quickly pulled it back again. There may have been slight contact, but only because Torres’ legs were spread out to the sides in the first stages of the “Sniper”.
Certainly the contact would not have been sufficient to upend the Spaniard if he had carried on running instead of playing for the penalty.
The referee was Phil Dowd and all Arsenal fans will remember from a certain 4-4 draw at St James’s Park that he is perfectly capable of awarding a penalty for nothing.
But I am not going to lay the blame on Fat Phil for this one. The fact is that many in the game today would argue strongly that the incident was a foul and deserved a penalty. They would point to the fact that there was some contact, however little, and that Juanita stuck her leg out, even though she quickly withdrew it.
In my book it’s a form of cheating and bad sportsmanship, although some pundits would describe Torres’ behavior as “clever” for having won the penalty; and certain players would no doubt say that they go down in anticipation of the challenge to avoid injury (I wonder what their domestic lives are like: Wife: “What ARE you doing?” Player: “Er… going down in case of injury?” Wife: “That’s funny, that’s exactly what John Terry said yesterday… Oops”).
Newcastle manager Punchy Pardew was being restrained when he said afterwards that Torres “made a meal” of it.
As it happens, in this game I don’t think it made any difference. Chelsea, I’m afraid to say, were on top for the whole game and would certainly have won it with or without the penalty. Their new creative signings have made them a force to be reckoned with. We can only hope that, as the older “stars” like Lampard and Terry start to get edged out, the usual discord will follow and will act like dry rot in the London Oilers’ edifice.
To go back to my point, I believe Torres expected to be fouled and started to fall before the foul happened, rather than falling as a result of being fouled. It’s a subtle but crucial difference. Across the season we will see many, many more such penalties, some of which will help decide the destination of silverware
Some of the shocking dives last season by the likes of Ashley Young and Gareth Bale were defended on the grounds that they were “anticipating” the fall.
Simple sportsmanship dictates that you don’t go down without being forced to. The Titanic did not “anticipate” the iceberg and plunge head first into the icy Atlantic seas before making any contact with the ‘berg.
Effects need causes otherwise they become causes in themselves.
The only solution to this cheating is – as with so many problem areas in modern football – the use of retrospective video evidence to punish offenders. At the moment this can’t happen because of the ludicrous rule that if the referee witnessed the incident his decision cannot be second guessed. Because referees, like the Pope, are infallible.
I would suggest a panel of ex players and referees should sit in judgement of such incidents. Their decision would not affect the result of the game, but they could award a ban to anyone found to be cheating. If they are not unanimous, the benefit of the doubt would go to the striker.
Of course to an Arsenal supporter this is mostly academic (no penalties awarded to us at home during all of last season, remember). But even if referees are allergic to awarding spot kicks for us, we know they’ll be happy enough to dish them out to our opponents.
Clamping down on the “already on his way down-ers” would benefit not just us, but the game as a whole.
*The Sniper is so called because it looks as if the player has been shot in the back from behind, sending his upper body forward while his legs fly out to the sides. The Sniper is believed to have been the subject of a Trademark dispute between Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, both of whom claim they invented it. The dive is now sold under licence in several countries including Spain, where Dani Alves holds the rights.