26 March, 2008

A Bin of Sin

If nothing else, this weekend’s Mascherano palava starkly underlined referees’ need for a third disciplinary alternative to yellow cards as cautions and red cards as straight dismissals. Putting aside the debate about whether or not the Liverpool man should’ve received a second yellow card for alleged dissent, the offence itself is one of the many ‘soft’ rules which warrants a booking under the current FA rules, as opposed to, say, violent conduct or dangerous play. It’s a good rule certainly, helping to shield referees from unnecessary torrents of abuse, and also more importantly aiming to set a good example for those younger players at grass roots level learning the game. However, as we saw on Sunday, if a player is already on a yellow card, is it really worthy of a sending off?

Similarly, in the second of Sunday’s matches, we saw Emmanuel Eboue booked for encroaching on a free-kick, and Didier Drogba booked for ecstatically celebrating his equalizer by taking his shirt off. I guess not being 10-yards is worthy of a booking, more as prohibitive measure against others doing it than in of itself, but again, had Eboue already been on a yellow card, would the referee have been right to send him off? As with the Mascherano incident, the gut instinct is no. Now I will never understand UEFA’s desire to book players who are deemed to be ‘inciting the crowd’ through their goal celebration, but again, had Drogba already been on a yellow card, for say a perceived act of ‘simulation,’ could any fan accept him being actually sent off for celebrating a crucial goal late-on in a nail-biting match? It just doesn’t seem to make any sense, but legislation and individual referees’ need to assert themselves often backs them into these kind of corners where an early booking often forces them to brandish the terminal red card unnecessarily.

The most sensible suggestion therefore is a rugby-style sin bin, with a ten minute cooling off period for what would normally be a second bookable offense the standard pre-cursor to a sending off. Obviously red cards would still exist, and straight dismissals for dangerous play maintained, but there is an undoubted difference between a ‘clumsy’ violent tackle, and a purely malicious one. Those who have played the game can read intent in players’ actions, and therefore a player lashing out with a frustrated tackle, or a striker sloppily trying to win a lost ball back, might warrant just a ten minute sin bin instead of a permanent dismissal. At the end of the day, nothing can be classed as a true solution until deeper issues of player/referee relations can be resolved, but ultimately no-one likes to see players sent off because, as with the Manchester United vs Liverpool match on Sunday, it simply ruins the game as a spectacle. Liverpool’s two Champions League ties with Inter Milan were similarly spoiled as contests by crazy refereeing, when in each case a period in the sin bin at the very most would’ve sufficed for both dismissed Inter players.

Referees feel pressure the same as players, but knee-jerk, reactionary decision making isn’t the way to answer latent critics. Above all else, players and supporters simply ask for consistency, and when some players are sent off for dissent while others exhibit considerably more intimidating and confrontational behaviour unpunished, people start to get frustrated. What is abundantly clear though is that next season we simply must start as we mean to go on, and if the FA rightly wants to install captain-only consolation with officials and player ‘no-go zones’ then great, but only as long as all the referees have the balls and intelligence to correctly apply them.