Spectator sport

Was it football or just mutimillionaires cheating?

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

Few sporting events in history have been greeted with such swivel-eyed, table-pounding hysteria as Barcelona’s comeback to overturn a 4-0 deficit against poor Paris St-Germain in the Champions League. Brilliant though it was, was it football or just another exercise in multimillionaires cheating? Luis Suárez clearly dived for the fifth goal, and should have been sent off. The sixth was arguably offside too. Either way, a video replay would have changed one or both goals and justice would have been done.

Cricket, tennis, rugby, athletics all have technology to prevent this sort of thing; why not football? The excuse is that it would hold things up and yes, we all like to see the game flow — but at what cost to its integrity? There are plenty of delays for injuries and goal celebrations anyway. Suárez’s opening goal was confirmed by goal-line technology, so why didn’t the ref have help with his penalty decisions from the same source? It is indefensible.

By the end I felt very sorry for the ref. Everybody — players, crowd, family pets watching on TV — was getting carried away. Which is fine except that the ref was so thoroughly discombobulated, trying to concentrate and be impartial in that inferno.

But the chaos of the Nou Camp could be a thing of the past if the introduction of video assistant referees (VARs) in next season’s FA Cup is a success. The precise terms of their use have yet to be worked out, but for me they can’t come soon enough.

And we would probably hear less moaning from José Mourinho, whose surliness is beginning to push the dial to 11. At the FA Cup quarter final between his Manchester United and Chelsea he was getting a fair bit of stick, as the home fans exercised their inalienable right to turn their coats with staggering rapidity. For his part, José more than once held up three fingers indicating, we must assume, his title victories as Chelsea manager. He may be as graceless and thin-skinned as Donald Trump.

José had directed his team, a joyless bunch, to foul Chelsea’s sublime Eden Hazard in rotation. After 20 minutes of seeing Darmian, Herrera and Jones kick seven bells out of Hazard, the ref told the United captain Chris Smalling he could see what was going on and to cut it out. They didn’t and Herrera picked up the red card. Mourinho went into his standard colossal sulk; and now United have been charged with failing to control their players. Damn good thing too.

You won’t remember, but many months ago this column forecast that Chelsea would have the league wrapped up in April, not just because they had the best manager and players, but because their rivals would be heavily involved in Europe. And who would bet against it now? N’golo Kanté, a whirling mass of creative energy, intelligence and vision, is the best player in English football. As for the manager Antonio Conte, you have to love a man who lies on top of the crowd to celebrate a goal, no? And there’s none of that conspiracy-spinning and endless dominance of the news cycle that made Mourinho’s time at Chelsea so exhausting.

What a contrast is rugby. Scotland’s absolute pounding in the Calcutta Cup was maybe not a good enough reason to break up one of the most successful political unions in modern history but the game itself looked like a training exercise for a bunch of 18-year-olds against an under-13s team. Yet what impressed me most was the reaction of the Scots captain John Barclay. Had it been José he would have whinged about losing their best player — Stuart Hogg — early on and having a man unfairly sent to the sin-bin. Barclay simply said his team was rubbish. That’s how we want our rugby men to react.

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