By Paul Gardner
Not for the first time, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger has been bitching about Sam Allardyce and the way that his Blackburn Rovers see fit to play soccer. Far too physical, in Wenger’s view.
Not at all, says Allardyce, everything we do is within the rules. Which leaves it up to the referee to decide. And different referees might have different ideas about where the dividing line runs. Not a satisfactory situation. The root of the problem lies, as so often, with the difficulty that the rule-makers have in defining, with any exactitude, the three categories: careless, reckless and excessive force.
The differences between the three are critical. They are supposed to represent a mounting scale of guilt -- a careless foul results only in a free kick against the offender; if the foul is reckless, out comes the yellow card; while using excessive force means a red-card expulsion.
There is no way that I can think of that would reliably distinguish those categories -- so the referee has to make the judgments, instantly. My opinion, expressed often enough in this column, is that English referees turn a much too lenient eye to all three categories, so that a team like Blackburn can play an overtly physical game while insisting, and believing, that they are doing nothing wrong, and while Wenger fumes that they are roughing his players up.
On that general point, my sympathies are entirely with Wenger. His latest bout of complaining brings the matter into sharp focus, because the rulebook does, in this case, have something specific to say. Wenger’s new anti-Allardyce rant accuses the Blackburn players of targeting Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski on free kicks and corner kicks: “Their main purpose was to stop the goalkeeper getting to the ball, not playing the ball.” That tactic led to both Blackburn goals, enough to give it a 2-1 win.
Wenger blamed referee Martin Atkinson for not calling Blackburn fouls on Fabianski: “In soccer, when you don't go for the ball and you stop the keeper going for the ball, it is a foul. I think the referee cannot allow that. I am very disappointed the referee lets that happen ... it is unfair to a goalkeeper."
The television images do indeed show a crowd of Blackburn players around Fabianski on each corner kick. More than normal? Who knows - what is normal, anyway? Was Fabianski pushed, as Wenger claims? Isn't everyone pushing and being pushed at corner kicks? The basic complaint here is that the Blackburn players were positioned to deliberately obstruct the goalkeeper. By rewording that only slightly, we arrive at a sentence that is included in the rulebook: “it is an offense to restrict the movement of the goalkeeper by unfairly impeding him, e.g. at the taking of a corner kick.”
That is very specific, and should settle the matter in Wenger’s favor. Except for one thing: the use of the word “unfairly.” Just why a body like the International Football Association Board, which so prides itself on the weightiness of its pronouncements that it calls them Laws, allows such a vague and totally undefinable word like “unfairly” to be there, I cannot imagine.
Wenger does not help matters when he states that the action of the Blackburn players is “unfair to a goalkeeper.” Let’s be clear: there’s no such offense as being unfair to a goalkeeper, or to any other player.
The offenses that are punishable by the referee are spelled out, in general terms, in the rules; only twice does the word “unfair” appear, not in the rules themselves, but in the “Interpretations” section. And both times it is shrouded in ambiguity. That is understandable. For fair play is usually seen as something out side of, maybe even above, the rules, more of an attitude of mind than a spelled-out commandment.
If the offense committed by the Blackburn players is seen as obstruction (or “impeding the progress of an opponent” as the rules have it) then, fine, but that applies to all players, not just goalkeepers. You wonder -- if this were happening to a field player, would anyone even notice?
What this strange use of the word “unfair,” both in the rulebook and by Wenger, reveals is the deeply ingrained feeling that goalkeepers need special rules of their own. And why not? They are, clearly not soccer players, so there is a logic to treating them differently -- starting with the fact that they’re allowed to do the one thing that is strictly forbidden to everyone else: they can use their hands.
From that a series of rules has arisen that basically protect goalkeepers far beyond what is granted to regular field players. In certain instances, this is fully justified, for the keeper, playing his non-soccer role, inevitably faces unique situations involving his hands or an unprotected body as he leaps to grab high balls. So, yes, this alien body on the soccer field does need some special rules.
Whether he needs a special “unfair-to-goalkeepers” rule to stop him being obstructed in his own goalmouth, I really don’t know. Why only him? Shouldn’t his own defenders be equally immune? “Impeding the progress of an opponent” is defined in the rule book, its basis being that it must include movement into the path of an opponent. Thus -- theoretically -- eight players (they could even be from Blackburn) could descend on the opposing penalty area at a corner kick and form a tight circle around the goalkeeper.
I cannot see that there is anything in the current rules to stop that. The rulebook says “All players have a right to their position on the field of play, being in the way of an opponent is not the same as moving into the way of an opponent.” Unless the referee can adjudge it “unsporting” -- which is really another way of saying unfair. But offenses dubbed as unsporting behavior are (unlike unfairness) included in the rulebook. One such is acting “in a manner which shows lack of respect for the game.” If that means -- which it may -- reducing the game to a bore, both shameless and brainless, then Sam Allardyce stands convicted in my judgment.