The eagerly awaited (by some) European Champions League Final took place last Wednesday on the sodden turf of the Estade d’France in Paris between Arsenal and Barcelona . Two teams more disliked by Chelsea supporters it would be hard to find (although Liverpool comes fairly high on the list as well), so it was with a degree of detachment that I watched the events unfold.
The big talking point was, of course, the sending off of Arsenal goalkeeper Lehmann. Chelsea fans would have been far from surprised that referee Terje Hauge had dismissed a player from a team opposing the team from Catalonia in the light of his apparent favouritism for the La Liga boys in the earlier encounter versus Chelsea. But the actual offence was plainly a sending-off, Lehmann clearly grabbing hold of Eto’o‘s foot (ostensibly just outside the penalty area).
Much debate was held about whether the goalkeeper should have merely received a yellow card as subsequent events saw Giuly place the ball into the empty net. The goal wasn’t given as presumably the referee had already whistled for the foul, and so the red card was inevitable. Commentators immediately condemned the ref’s actions, suggesting that play should have been allowed to continue to see if any advantage was accrued. Even UEFA boss Sepp Blatter, who’s always got something to say, suggested that Hauge had made an error and indeed the referee later admitted that he had got it wrong.
The general consensus was that the decision spoiled the whole ‘showpiece final’ by reducing the Premiership team to 10 men so early in the match, forcing them into a defensive formation, cutting short Robert Pires‘ last match for the Gunners and probably denying Dennis Bergcamp a final outing in an Arsenal shirt.
But what if play was allowed to continue and Giuly had missed the open goal? Or if an Arsenal defender made a last-ditch clearance? The referee would have had no option under the current laws of the game but to send Lehmann off. The game would still have stood 0-0, Barcelona would still have had only a free kick as compensation for being denied a ‘clear goal scoring opportunity’ and they would still have had to break down a resolute 10-man Arsenal backs-to-the-wall defence. As often happens in football, the 10-men heroically succeed in achieving a draw, or even a win against the 11 men opposition. In this case, Arsenal took the lead and held on until the 76th minute. Let’s suppose that Arsenal held out until full-time and won the cup. Would the English media have been harping on about the referee’s decision to send Lehmann off? I don’t think so. Barcelona would have been the ones wailing about the injustice of being denied a perfectly ‘good’ goal.
I happen to think that there is a quite simple rule change which would restore some of the balance to the beautiful game, and it’s a change that I’ve been harping on about to anyone who will listen for many many years. Probably since Schumacher body checked Battiston and left him hospitalised for months in the 1982 World Cup.
The rule change:
In the event of a player (goalkeeper or defender) denying the attacking side the proverbial ‘clear goal scoring opportunity,’ inside or outside the penalty area, then a penalty kick should be awarded. The offending player should be yellow-carded if necessary. Thus, the attacking side is rewarded with a goal scoring opportunity, the defending side still has 11 men on the pitch, and the chance of a ‘showpiece final’ or any other match for which spectators have paid good money to watch remains unspoiled. Justice.
Here’s another example: Earlier this year in a Premiership match between Everton and Blackburn Rovers, 22-year old debutant goalkeeper Iain Turner was sent off after just nine minutes for handling the ball outside the penalty area – simply a moment of madness, neither being unsporting, dangerous or denying a scoring opportunity to the attacking side, but the referee had ‘no alternative’ but to dismiss him for what amounts to a technicality.
To my mind, this rule change would make the game fairer, doesn’t alter the spirit of the game of football (which introducing things like ‘sin bins’ surely would) and give a distinct advantage to the fouled team without ruining the remainder of the match.
Some might say that to award a penalty for an offence outside the area would be a huge decision for a referee to make, especially in a big game. But is it any bigger than giving a player a red card? I suggest that’s it’s not.
Oddly, I’d never heard anyone else come up with this idea until a few weeks ago, when a caller to a sport talk radio suggested the same law change. They were of course shouted down by the presenters.