By Paul Gardner
Is there any excuse for this? That the Europa League cup -- one of soccer's major trophies -- has just been won by Sevilla thanks to absolutely blatant cheating by its goalkeeper?
After Sevilla and Benfica had played two hours of soccer they were still where they started, deadlocked at 0-0. At that point, thanks to soccer’s fatuous shoot-out, those two hours -- in other words the entire game - become irrelevant. They no longer matter. In fact, they need not have been played.
The game will now be decided in the space of a few minutes by a synthetic procedure that has nothing to do with the two hours of sweat, skill and toil that have preceded it.
Off we go, and in no time at all Beto, the Sevilla goalkeeper has saved the second and third Benfica shots. The shootout is virtually over. Whether that means the game is over is another matter -- after all, the FIFA rules do state, unequivocally, that “The kicks from the penalty mark [i.e. the shootout] are not part of the match.” Right. But Sevilla will be the team doing all the celebrating.
I’m not so sure that the refereeing crew have anything to celebrate. Particularly the AR standing on the goal-line. His job is -- isn’t it? -- to make sure that the goalkeepers play by the rules, that they do not cheat by moving forward off the goal line before the ball is kicked. Yet this AR, standing a mere 10 yards away, with an unimpeded view of the goalkeeper, allowed Beto to advance over a yard forward before making the crucial save on Oscar Cardoso’s kick. On the next Benfica kick, Beto was at it again, slightly less flagrantly, in saving Rodrigo’s kick.
Actually, it was worse than that. There was an AR on one side of the goal, and an AAR on the other. Neither indicated anything wrong.
Benfica should surely have been permitted to take both those kicks again. I can add my amendment to the rules now: Sevilla goalkeeper Beto should have been yellow carded after the first offense and told -- though that should not really be necessary -- that he would be ejected if he cheated again. That would mean, as I read the rules, that Sevilla would have to use a substitute goalkeeper from the 11 players already to chosen to take part in the shootout. A non-goalkeeper, in other words. Which should put a stop to the cheating.
And it should certainly end this unpleasant business of turning a cheating goalkeeper into a hero -- the UEFA website talks of Beto's "penalty heroics." We’ve been here before -- with Sevilla, when it won the same trophy back in 2007, thanks to three shootout saves by its goalkeeper Andres Palop; I wrote at the time that Palop had “cheated on at least two of the kicks, probably on all three.”
One of the worst examples of goalkeeper shootout cheating had come in the UEFA Champions League final in 2005 when Liverpool’s Jerzy Dudek advanced two yards to keep out Andrea Pirlo’s shot -- and to help Liverpool win the title.
But we’ve grown used to seeing ARs and AARs standing immobile as statues, apparently unable to decide whether the ball has entered the net, or whether a goalkeeper has moved.
Not for the first time there is a considerable lack of clarity in the rules. What do they say about the role of the AR? Most of us would surely, and logically, assume his role to be identical for a regular penalty kick and for a shootout kick.
Not so. For a start, positioning. For a regular penalty kick, the AR stands on the goal line at the intersection with the penalty area line. In the shootout (where there is no possibility of action continuing after a kick has been taken) the AR moves in to stand at the intersection of the goal line and the six yard box -- i.e. 12 yards closer to the goalkeeper.
The function of the AR at a penalty kick is defined in these words: “If the goalkeeper blatantly moves off the goal line before the ball is kicked and a goal is not scored, the assistant referee must raise his flag.” That’s it. No mention of his making a decision on whether the ball has crossed the goal line.
But for the shootout, the instructions for the AR read very differently: “His main duty is to check if the ball crosses the goal line.” No mention of goalkeeper movement. (Also no mention of goal line technology which, if in use, presumably over rules any AR decision).
So maybe the AR in the Sevilla-Benfica game is not to blame. And if he is not responsible for reporting goalkeeper movement, then it must be the referee’s job. Though, if the referee is also expected to keep an eye on the legality of the kicker’s run up (and if he isn’t, I don’t know who is), then his positioning as diagramed in the rule book, at the corner of the six-yard box, is anything but ideal.
Whatever, this episode -- in a showcase game -- was badly screwed up. I will add another of my rule amendments: That TV replays be used to decide the matter. This is one of the problem decisions in which -- just as in offside calls -- the AR (or the referee) is asked to be looking in two directions at the same moment. Not easy.
The main objection to replays, the one that delayed the use of technology for so long, was that the game must go on, that it must never be halted to allow for a replay to be studied.
But the shootout, by FIFA’s own definition, is “not part of the match.” There is no action to be interrupted, hence no reason at all why each shootout kick could not be instantly reviewed on a TV replay, with immediate instructions to the referee if a re-take is considered necessary.
The shootout, whatever one might think of it (for the record, I consider it an absurdity), just happens to be the crucial point of any game in which it is employed. It decides who wins. How, then, can it be acceptable that its operation is so carelessly treated in the rule book, and its implementation so haphazardly conducted on the field?