Over the weekend I caught a number of football games among which was the Real Zaragoza v Sevilla clash. It was a pretty poor game, which makes you wonder why I didn't turn it off, though it wasn't the standard of football that rally bothered me but the constant cheating. Time and again there was cynical fouling, blatant diving, play acting & haranguing of officials. It made the game a very poor contest with little flow to proceedings & excruciating to watch. Again I don't know why I was watching it though it probably has something to do with being a glutton for punishment - I am married after all!
The problem with this game & the sport in general beyond the lack of value for the paying public is that these antics are nothing short of cheating. The epitome of this distasteful behaviour was the attention handed to Atletico player Jose Antonio Reyes. He was on the receiving end of several crude challenges as Zaragoza tried to stop the winger from impacting the game. Using a tactic developed by the Neville brothers, a succession of Zaragoza players fouled the former Arsenal player thus ensuring that no one player got into trouble for this constant fouling. And to cap off the evening for Reyes ironically he was the one who was sent off for violent conduct after swinging a stray arm in the direction of Zaragoza player Eliseu Pereira. Needless to say little if any contact was made but that didn't stop Pereira going to ground clutching his face as if he had been mauled by a wild dog.
That the referee sided with the players/team that sort to participate in the darker arts & damage the game as spectacle says something about where football is going. Now I don't believe that football is all about attacking teams & creative players. And as much as it is a joy to watch the likes of Barcelona & Arsenal play an exciting brand of football there is just as much enjoyment to behold from the physical contest between two committed teams. So while the games governing bodies don't have a duty to protect attacking teams they do have a duty to uphold fairness. What took place at La Romareda was not just unfair it was the rewarding of underhand tactics & downright dishonesty.
The solution to these tactics is really quite simple. Anyone caught play acting should get an automatic 3 match ban. And diving would fall within the bounds of play acting. This can be implemented by the referee on the pitch (ideally) as well as retrospectively. The three match ban doesn't mean a sending off in that particular game but suspension from future matches. In terms of targeted fouling the referee needs to be firmer with the perpetrators by warning the team captain that he will start handing out yellow cards for fouls against the aggrieved player. To often referee's fall back on the option of counting the number of fouls by a player before issuing a card. Thus the likes of Mascharano, Diarra, Fletcher etc get away with several fouls before picking up a caution. Bookings should be viewed in context of the attempt to win the ball. Thus a player who makes no attmept to play the ball or starts his attempt by shirt pulling or dragging back his opponent should be cautioned. Players who pursue such tactics are aiming to stop the player rather than making a genuine effort to get the ball.
I'm sure the majority of football fans want to see attacking & creative play by the team they support. To enable this we should not reward those that seek to destroy creativity with underhand tactics. In my mind football should be about attacking intent but more than this it should be about playing within the spirit of the game. And what took place between Zaragoza & Atletico was as far removed from the spirit of fair play as possible. So if we want football to remain the beautiful game we need to act to preserve that beauty.