By Paul Gardner
It was only some 10 months ago that we were getting ready for the World Cup final -- a game between Spain and the Netherlands that promised to give us everything that such a game should -- the very best of soccer.
Yet it turned out to be a bitterly disappointing affair, for reasons that are worth pondering. A poor game -- not because one or both of the teams was tired or off form or was missing key players through injury or suspension, not because the weather was bad and the field unplayable, not for any of those reasons. And not, in my opinion, because of the referee -- but we’ll come to that aspect shortly.
The 2010 World Cup final was a travesty of the sport because one of the teams, the Netherlands, chose to make it that. They chose to adopt a highly provocative and deplorable physical approach -- one which certainly disrupted the Spanish, but which also thoroughly undermined the Dutch ability -- unquestioned -- to play good soccer.
Tomorrow we have another climactic game, the Champions League final, Manchester United vs. Barcelona, which, as it happens, will feature, playing for Barcelona, many of the players who played for Spain against the Dutch in 2010. Are they likely to encounter, from ManU, a similar anti-soccer approach to that used by the Dutch?
No, they are not. I’ve never seen ManU play that way. What we can expect from ManU, I think is that they will play a physical game -- without the overt thuggery of the Dutch. Barcelona should be used to that by now. Anyway, clashes between differing styles are a regular feature of all competitive sports, part of the fascination.
Possibly ManU has an advantage in that the game is being played in England, but I can’t see that being a deciding factor. Much more important will be the manner in which the game is refereed by the Hungarian Viktor Kassai. He has a problem though, right from the start -- not of his making, and not caused by either of the teams. Simply that this is a Grand Final -- a massively important game, a showcase game, a big money game. The publicity and the glamour surrounding it bring with them a special sort of pressure that Howard Webb, who refereed the infamous World Cup final last year, found it virtually impossible to deal with.
Webb has been criticized for not treating the Dutch fouling more harshly earlier in the game. But the pressure on Webb was that he try his darndest to keep 11 Dutch players on the field, and not to “ruin the game” by using his red card to reduce the Dutch to 10 men -- it might have even been nine men. And what kind of a competitive game would that have led to?
Did he get it right? I’m not a great admirer of Webb’s refereeing, but I think -- confronted with a team that was bent on physical mayhem -- he did the best he could under impossible conditions. The critics should point their fingers firstly at the Dutch, and secondly, at soccer’s own rules.
That second problem, the rules, is what Kassai will have to deal with. Will he, like Webb, be reluctant to hand out cards in the first half? Probably he will, because that responsibility of “ruining the game” weighs heavily indeed.
It can be argued that the pressure to keep 22 players on the field is self-induced. There is some truth in that, but as an explanation it ignores the fact that the players are well aware of the referee’s problem, and can use it to their advantage. They may feel that they can get away with more fouling or trickery in this massive game than they would do in a regular league game, that the chance of their being red-carded is smaller than usual. And they may well be right. That is a problem that the sport’s rule-makers have yet to face up to.
We can expect referee Kassai to be free from bias, but it is asking a lot to expect him not to be influenced by the big-occasion pressure not to ‘ruin the game.”
As for bias, those of us watching on television here in the States, will no doubt be faced with the problem of biased Brit announcers, whether they be genuine Brits or part of Fox’s stable of pseudo-Brits.
Which will mean that, added to the usual mangling of the Spanish names, will be shrill cries of horror and outrage each time a Barcelona player -- the focus will be on Dani Alves -- goes down (“too easily,” of course) and plenty of excuses whenever Paul Scholes perpetrates one of his specialty fouls, and barely concealed admiration when Nemanja Vidic gets away with another cunning elbow.
Opposing all that, the sport of soccer has just this to offer, a short list of magical names: Lionel Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa, Wayne Rooney, Chicharito, Nani, Antonio Valencia. Eight names, just over a third of the players on the field -- each one with a strong claim to soccer brilliance, each one capable of turning on the artistry and the excitement that we surely have a right to expect from this game.
The prospect is the most exciting that I can recall for a final in quite a while. Well, for a year or so, that is -- because, yes, I was one of those who foresaw nothing but great things coming out of that Spain vs. Netherlands game. That game let us, and the sport, down badly. Since then, the name of soccer has been pretty thoroughly dragged through the mire, reaching its nadir with this week’s corruption stories.
Tomorrow presents a wonderful opportunity for the players, the precious elements of the game, the jewels that really give it its glitter, to restore some its pride and luster. It is within the power of those names, Messi and Rooney and the rest, not forgetting Viktor Kassai, to make the Beautiful Game reality tomorrow.