Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Last I'll Say on this Henry Business, For Ever, I Promise

So, in the sober light of day, a few things I feel need to be said. Traditionally when people get hot and bothered about something in football, I try and keep my distance. I didn't this morning, and so I want to add a few things to my little two-cents.

First, I don't buy the whole "poetry of the injustice of life reflected in sport" business, that soccer, indeed all of sport, has always been this way, with dives, fouls, goals not given, twas ever thus and ever shall be, world without end, amen. That strikes me as easy cynicism. Also, pointing out that the particular politicians and the members of the FAI calling for a replay are already standing on shaky ground when it comes to matters of "justice," or describing FIFA's indifference to the result as "typical" and that we should accept it and move on, or that replays are complicated and annoying and could pave the way for all sorts of hassles in future, raises sport to a level over and above human agency—they elevate sport to a matter of fate.

We give too much importance to sport when we regard its shortcomings and injustices as immutable, reflective of some sort of "fallen nature," to borrow a hackneyed expression. When FIFA points to a rule and says, "whatever the ref says goes, sorry" that is an abdication of responsibility. Not acknowledging there was a serious error, and pledging to correct it in future, is an abdication of responsibility. Pointing out it's okay because they all dive, cheat, hustle and pull shirts in the box, make dirty tackles, switch allegiances for money, they all award contracts from bribes, fix matches—that's an abdication of responsibility. This is sport, not the perpetual motion of the globes. We play it, we accept the rules, but we do so with the proviso that they will be enforced. An ideal, yes, but one we, human beings and our institutions, are responsible for adhering to, not fate.

So no, FIFA does not get a pass from me on this one, because we can't just go on letting our cynicism speak for us whenever this sort of thing happens...


Brian said...

From me it's an easy lyricism more than an easy cynicism, I think, because the idea that the game can reveal a margin of error at the edges of the rules, and that amazing things can sometimes happen there, does have a poetic appeal. I mean, fuck, I'm not sorry the Hand of God goal happened: that's part of the lore.

But yes, it's a mistake to jump from there to the attitude that the rules don't really matter or that we're not supposed to care about something like last night or that FIFA are supposed to treasure the aesthetic potential of human error over their obligation to make the game fair. I'm not sure what I think about replays---I'm not prepared to rule out "hassles in the future" as a possibly valid reason not to pursue them, precisely because this is only sport and we shouldn't make too much of it---but I've been amazed at the combination of weariness and glibness with which the "don't care" side of this debate has made its case.

This has been the rare story the shrugging over which is just as depressing as the shrieking.

Ted said...


As always, a well-thought out piece. I'm not sure that I agree, however, that everyone who's accepted the result has done so from a place of cynicism. I also think that it's overstating the case to say that "whatever the referee says, goes", but I am strongly opposed to video replay for a number of reasons, so maybe I'm just biased. I can see both sides of this one, and it is a very distressing and unfortunate episode for all involved.

Dongshow said...

I loved that goal, and instantly thought it was hysterical. Horrible injustices are one of the most entertaining parts of the game. I could never hope for anything but pain to be inflicted upon a team with Robbie Keane and Damien Duff anyway. Oh well, all these people with their think of children style rants need to calm down, the game like life isn't fair, its more enjoyable that way. And International football is shit anyway, this weekend can't come soon enough.

Fredorrarci said...

First off, sorry for my tweeted snideness earlier. It was rude, and your post deserved more consideration that that. Mea culpa.

We play it, we accept the rules, but we do so with the proviso that they will be enforced.

I'd say we do so with the expectation that they will be enforced as best they can, which isn't necessarily the same thing, because to expect total enforcement would be unreasonable in a game with as many moving parts as football. (This is why I'm broadly in favour of the Europa League's extra officials -- an extra, strategically-placed pair of eyes is going to be far more help than hindrance.) And -- maybe I'm bound to say this -- I think it's the many-moving-parts element multiplied by the hyperdriven competitiveness of serious sport (or potentially any sport) that makes it less cynical than realistic to expect transgressions such as Henry's almost as a feature rather than a bug. Motive plus opportunity, as it were. (This makes me think about golf: it is frequently held up as a paragon of virtue, but there are far, far fewer opportunities for cheating in golf in the first place.)

Almost a feature, because it is indeed incorrect to neglect human agency; Henry's handball was unquestionably wrong. But I'm always squeamish about blaming the referee for not spotting such incidents, because it's unfair to ask him to see everything. Criticism of last night's ref is especially harsh, because he was otherwise superb. This was a grave error in that it led to the deciding goal, but that was the ref's bad luck. When you put one man, even as eminently competent a man as that, in charge of a tempest of a game, mistakes like that will happen; you cross your fingers and hope that they won't have serious consequences. This is what makes the reaction in Ireland so nauseating: it forgoes the reality of things (again, I think it's realism more than cynicism) in favour of one long, self-indulgent, hypocritical whine.

(Aside: the politicians who have weighed in on this -- it's not just the Minister for Justice who has called for a replay but the Taoiseach and Tánaiste (premier and deputy premier) as well -- deserve all the scorn they get on this. For three of the four most powerful people in the land to interfere (the Tánaiste raising it in parliament, the Taoiseach saying he'll get onto Sarkozy over it) is embarrassing. And the FAI should know better. All they're doing is prolonging it and helping perpetuate a reluctance to view the match and the campaign in toto, as we should be doing.)

There comes a point with the officiating where you have to say "what's done is done". The question is: where is that point? In this sense, I don't mind FIFA's stance in not entertaining the idea of a replay. They've drawn a line and they stick to it. I hate to mention the slippery slope idea, but to start seeking replays because of refereeing errors would lead to a tangle of sub-committees and a run on ivory back-scratchers for Switzerland's legal community. The practicalities of this have to be taken into account; we should be keen to see the game played as fairly as possible, but not beyond the point of reason. Replays for errors are unreasonable; no-one really knows whether in-game replays are (it's an idea that has merit, but it's more complicated than Sky would have us believe).

Fredorrarci said...

Continued (who knew Blogger had a character limit in comments?)

I'm also squeamish about heaping opprobrium upon Henry, or whoever, certainly to the degree we've seen in the last twenty-four hours. It's somewhat -- somewhat -- unfair to ask players, as we implicitly do, to be the best players they can be on the one hand, and on the other be indignant when the internal force that drives them to do so sometimes shows up in unsavoury ways. Again, I'm not at all excusing what Henry did; it's just that I think it's the obverse of the same coin, or that there's at least an overlap. It's not a particularly happy idea, granted, but I don't think it's meant to be. I don't think it's to abdicate responsibility to acknowledge this. Far from it: it gives us, I believe, a basis of understanding from which to regard this web of issues.

Richard Whittall said...

Hi all! Thanks for the comments, and no bother Fred, sometimes I need a good honest STFU from time to time, even if that was not your intention.

Anyway, yesterday gave me pause, because I wonder long we can go on in this sport equivocating away these sorts of decisions. In the old days of endless FA Cup tie replays, before anyone had heard of TV let alone TV 'rights,' a replay of the sort being called for wouldn't entail the sort of nuisance it would now with television rights and all the rest. But there arguably wouldn't be nearly as much opprobrium about the way Ireland went out either, because the World Cup had yet to bear the burden of importance, financially, culturally, sportingly, that it has earned since 1970.

The problem to my mind isn't Henry (I have refrained from joining the chorus of hate as best I can), or the match official, who, as has been said, was up until that point impeccable. And it's not even as if this was the biggest scandal to come out yesterday, as pitchinvasion reminded us with the German match fixing arrests yesterday.

It just strikes me as mildly absurd that a match like this, of this sort of importance, at this stage, can be so badly fucked up as to move it beyond a sporting matter and into the absurd. That upsets me because it honestly makes me not want to watch football when the possibility of that sort of outcome, with no real acknowledgment from the powers that be, can be allowed to stand. At least not in a game as low scoring, as frustrating, yet as wonderful when it is, as football.

This sort of thing has happened to my own country in the past, with errant penalty decisions and dubious missed calls and offside goals that were in fact onside. But I think there has to be a point where we stop shrugging shoulders, where the lyricism of a lost chance, an unseen hand, turns into vulgarity.

That moment came for me yesterday...not because I'm an Ireland supporter, which I wasn't really, maybe when O'Leary scored that penalty, but because it had nothing to do with football, or even the old familiar narrative. France weren't even villains, nor Henry, nor the match official. The villany was the inevitability of it, the collective understanding that once the ref pointed his hand, there was no going back. It's like those lashing out at Henry just needed the release, because they knew that was just about all they'd get.

I don't know, maybe I should get back into hockey...sure, there are video replays, but even if they're wrong, there's a good chance the aggreived team can score anyway.

Fredorrarci said...

Trying to think practically about this: would in-game replays go some way towards dispelling this? Leave aside the (valid) concerns about how it could be implemented without disturbing the flow of the game for a moment. If FIFA / IFAB decided that allowing this wouldn't diminsh the referee's responsibility, would that be a way towards something better, something less insanely random, do you think? (Or am I missing your point?)

Ed Bottomley said...

Richard - You say "this is sport" but it is only sport for us - the audience. For those on the inside it is business, with a whole different set of rules. For what ts worth I think the ONLY thing Ireland could have done to ensure a replay would have been to walk. If all eleven irishmen walked off after that joke of a decision - then they would have effectively "paused" the game - forcing FIFA to make a decision rather than use the silent treatment.

Richard Whittall said...

Let's say you have a match official in a room, in a far off corner of the stadium, hooked to CCTV of several different angles of the net.

Let's also say that only the captain is allowed to ask the ref for a video replay, and that it can only happen once in a match.

Let's say the that camera match official's word wasn't binding, that it was still up to the referee to make a decision. And, I don't know, if the decision stays the same, the captain who called for the replay gets an automatic yellow car.

So yesterday, after about a two minute deliberation, Gallas goal gets disallowed, no one remembers Henry as a villain, Ireland go out to a lacklustre France on penalties or a spectular Govou strike and that's that. Am I a crazy person? The very first thing I mentioned yesterday was not "fuck Henry he's a cheater," it was "let's talk seriously about video replay."

Richard Whittall said...

That should read "yellow card." He could get a yellow car but it should be manual, not automatic.

Fredorrarci said...

That should read "yellow card." He could get a yellow car but it should be manual, not automatic.

Nicely rescued, sir...

I hear you. I think it silly the way some people think replays are a panacea. If they are to be brought in, it needs to be in a controlled way such as you described rather than a free-for-all, sending every other decision upstairs.

I get where your frustration is coming from: Fifa's intransigence has been something to behold. I wonder where it comes from. Maybe their (well, Blatter's) belief that a match at the top should be run just like at the bottom is sincere. Though to my mind, the Europa League extra-officials experiment, much as I like it, jars with this. Many amateur leagues struggle to send three officials to games. How on earth are they meant to find two more?

Hey, maybe FIFA are just waiting for Adidas to come along with some patented goal-line technology. Then we'll see what happens...

Richard Whittall said...

I agree. The idea should be do no harm; if a video replay rule or something similar impedes the rule of play, it would wipe out the benefit of preventing a decision like yesterday's to stand. But I think there are intelligent ways of introducing it without making a mockery of the sport. Consider me "outed" on this issue.

Anyway, very interesting, if exhausting day. Glad not too much blood was spilled, but even gladder to move on from this, I think, for my own mental well-being as much as for anything else...cheers and fun fun fun having this debate, despite the Thierry Ennui (stolen from the Guardian).

villafandan said...

i hate to admit where i got this from, but i'd be more embarrassed if someone had also seen rising sun (1993) and knew i was ripping it off...

"the japanese have a saying - 'fix the problem, not the blame'"
sean connery

it's amazing how often i can and do use it.

personally, i could give two shits whether it's the ref's fault, henry's fault, fifa's fault, who cares??

it's the 21st century, just fix it. bitches.

seriously, we can watch a dozen replays at home while the ref is still surrounded by the players arguing about what happened. yeah, we don't want to interrupt that with some pesky video evidence. facts are so tedious!! meh

i apologise for the bad form of swinging by for a vent on first comment... i promise to drive by again.


btw, i enjoy your pithy match day tweets.

Grant said...

"But I think there are intelligent ways of introducing it without making a mockery of the sport. Consider me "outed" on this issue."

Richard, there's not, there just isn't. All that ends up happening is that we come back here arguing about the video replays themselves.

Watch a five-hour long American football game and rethink your stance on this issue.

And by the way, I think cynicism is getting a bad rap over the course of these comments :)

Ole Gunner said...


One way it can be done is to have a 5th official in the broadcast room watching all the angles, the same time as the director does.

When he sees something the referee might have missed, his job is to tell the referee.

In case you're worried about an official hidden from sight, the proceedings and the actions of the official can be captured on a tape to be given to the two teams at the end of the game.

The way this would have worked in the France-Ireland case is that the 5th official would have told the ref immediately that there was a handball.

The referee would have booked Henry. Goal would have been restarted and everything would have taken less than 10 seconds.

People watching at home would even have been aware of any change in the proceedings.

Henry would not be a villain. Ireland wouldn't get away with playing victim.

The only losers would be the media and blogs---as the lack of outrage would diminish circulation, audience and views.

There are literally scores of ways video can be used to help referees make good decisions.