Remember, remember the 19th of September? Of course you do. Anyone with an interest in refereeing will recall the day Chelsea and Arsenal met at Stamford Bridge and Mike Dean responded to a feud between Diego Costa and central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel by sending off the wrong man.
That, in effect, was the verdict of the FA, who subsequently lifted Gabriel’s suspension – at least the part of it imposed for a red card – and handed a three-match ban to Costa despite his having stayed on the field as Chelsea ran out 2-0 winners. And I’m one of the many who applauded the governing body for imposing retrospective justice on this occasion, for Costa’s often acclaimed aggression had gone too far and become unpleasantly cynical.
Watching on television, many of us would have been dismayed by the antics we could see but Dean and his assistants apparently missed. But the issue of video assistance – and the ridiculous situation in which match officials are denied the privilege of the viewer – is one for another day. What most acutely upset me that day was another incident, which received no media attention and yet pertains more acutely to the character of the game.
Eden Hazard was trying to dart beyond Gabriel to the byline. He was near goal and the threat was obvious as his trickery appeared likely to take him past the defender. Gabriel then lent into Hazard, arms up, and shoved the winger.
Hazard, though impeded, kept striving to reach the ball but Gabriel, with the referee’s acquiescence, kept pushing him back until the ball, which the Arsenal defender was making no attempt to play or even get near, ran into touch and Dean signalled for a goal-kick.
Hazard looked understandably miffed but, when the camera alighted on Jose Mourinho, he did not rant and rave but merely smiled, as managers tend to do when they observe blatant but familiar injustice. For referees the world over seem to have been told that shoving is okay and too many people have come to accept it. Such as the television commentator in this instance who said the defender was ‘simply too strong for him.’
A similar decision went in Chelsea’s favour the following weekend, when Gary Cahill used his arms to push Azoye Perez off the ball at Newcastle – the youngster only briefly gaped in astonishment that no free-kick was given by Martin Atkinson. Once again the law, and its shoulder-to-shoulder convention, had been flouted.
If I wanted arm-wrestling, I’d ask for it. And I know a lot of other people are concerned by the proliferation of use of hands (as in Costa’s assaults on Koscielny), elbows and forearms – in other words, the very parts of the body that are deemed by the law to have no part in football unless employed by a goalkeeper.
FIFA and the referees who overwhelmingly collude in this trend are doing the game potentially great harm. As much harm, I believe, as they did good with the forward-friendly reforms of the 1990s that led to the flourishing of the little guys so wonderfully epitomised by Lionel Messi today.
Football must remain a game for everyone and not just the muscular. It must be learned on the field and not in the gym. Otherwise we shall eventually cease to love it.