Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

James Lawton: Eduardo brings a cheats charter that bit closer

A lot of people think we should move on from the Eduardo affair, with minimum fall-out and as quickly as we can, but a lot of people are wrong.

Perhaps one point should be lit up in neon for fear that misunderstanding of something so vital to the health of the most popular game in the world will continue to be lost in mountains of obfuscation.

It is that the Eduardo Affair could so easily have been the Drogba or the Rooney or the Gerrard Affair and the only difference is that the armies of complainants would be dressed in different colours. The most important thing is that at last an important principle has been established at a high level of the game. If Uefa keep their nerve, it is that players cannot be allowed to continue to make cheating an integral part of football.

That this scabrous ambition has been, for the time being, achieved is indicated by the extent of the dismay that has greeted Uefa's agreement that what happened at the Emirates last week when Eduardo threw himself to the ground and won a penalty was a matter for their urgent attention.

The big problem, we are now told, is that Uefa will be obliged to investigate and judge every similar incident when a referee is completely hoodwinked and the integrity of the game has, once again, gone to hell.

But is this a chore to be dismissed or a challenge to welcome? A lot depends on how you see football best spending its vast resources. Should so much of it go exclusively on creating a player plutocracy which is beginning to challenge reason or should quite a bit of it be siphoned off for a proper supervision of the game and the enforcement of some decent standards?

Also vital to the argument is how you value the role of technology at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The conviction here is that should be vastly extended, partly to assist increasingly pressurised match officials, and partly to most effectively attack the tide of cheating which so frequently distorts fair competition.

One thing is certain. No top manager is ever going to put the interests of the game before his own and his team's. This means that reform will never come from within — the reaction of Eduardo's manager Arsene Wenger has made this abundantly clear over the last few days. He, like all his rivals, has had so many opportunities to make a stand against diving which has become so commonplace it is now plainly seen by many as a standard and unshakeable part of the culture of modern English football.

Wenger, who we keep saying to the point of weariness stands for so much that is best in football, further confused the issue at the weekend when he sought to draw a line between diving and persistent fouling. On balance he thought diving was less 'anti-football.' Could we all stop for a moment and weigh quite what Wenger was saying.

Well, of course he wasn't saying anything, at least not something that came with a molecule of moral value. He was throwing another clump of mud in the water. Persistent fouling demands its own punishment because, of course, it is another form of cheating, and it is a duty of referees to enforce the laws. However, to make a case for diving being less 'anti-football' than any other perversion of the game was at best mischievous, at worst a travesty of honest debate. He said that for consistency Lionel Messi must be hauled before authority if he was seen to head-butt an opponent. Where is the problem in this?

Diving, whether Wenger and all the other managers who so relentlessly see everything from their own perspective like or not, is in football the most visible form of a rottenness that is now hopping from one sport to another like a monster flea.

Who can name a front line sport unaffected by the contagion? Rugby union has a nasty condition indeed, compounded by conspiratorial attempts at the cover up of the most sickening details. Formula One is immersed in a third major scandal in a few years, charges that a driver was told to deliberately crash his car now being added to proven cases of massive industrial espionage and lying by a major team, McLaren, and their word champion driver Lewis Hamiltion.

Tennis is periodically hit with claims of match-fixing. Cricket has been through that miasma and now has to cope with the most craven of persistent appealing. Even golf, the game which proclaims that when you cheat you are injuring yourself more than any other, is not immune, as were reminded by the public argument between the accused, Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie, and his accuser, Sandy Lyle.

But then which is the sport which dominates all others, that reaches most profoundly into every corner of the world, every social class, and makes the others look like pygmies in terms of universal appeal. It is football and football, rightly or wrongly, is seen by many as the most flawed of all.

When compared to the lightly punished thuggery we have seen in rugby recently, some may argue that this is a hard claim to sustain. But then maybe they should do what Uefa have elected to do. Maybe they should re-run the Eduardo film one more time. If a a sport is not infinitely reduced by such an episode, if it believes that any proper action against it is impossible in this age of technology, it is surely open to the charge that it has lost the will to cleanse itself.

The last great initiative in football administration was when Fifa banned the back-pass to the goalkeeper after a World Cup of terrible sterility in Italy in 1990. There were plenty of protests at the time and one who argued against it was that superb breaker of defences, Kenny Dalglish.

Dalglish, then manager of Blackburn, argued that the backpass was part of the game, and there were other initiatives that should be tried first. “One thing I would admit, though,” Dalglish said, “it will make a few defenders a lot more honest.”

The hope here is that the Eduardo affair will have the same affect on all those forwards who currently cheat with blazing impunity. If it does, who will say it hasn't been worth all the trouble?

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