Football: Letter of law should apply in absence of sporting spirit

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NO AMOUNT of Fifa fog, of which there is an endless supply, can obscure difficulties that have arisen in football since the world governing body began to meddle with the laws of the game, especially in matters of interpretation.

A house divided is a disorderly house in any sport. Fifa's experience in this field goes back to the 1990 World Cup when one of the most miserable tournaments on record prompted moves to counteract a decline in standards of play and behaviour. I don't think a great deal has come of this. In fact, there is plenty to suggest a crisis of confidence.

Once a rather loose fraternity, concerned chiefly with preservation of the laws and international schedule-making, Fifa has been playing hardball for more than a decade to extend its influence. Bearing this in mind, the importance of incidents during this week's highly charged encounter between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury - when the referee Graham Poll, who can look back on his performance with satisfaction, found himself dealing with dissent on such a scale that he was pushed to the limit of his patience - cannot be exaggerated.

A betrayal not only of Poll's diplomacy but of the more lenient attitude referees have been encouraged to adopt, it showed how slowly the authorities have moved on the issue of howling malcontents. If a common complaint of players and their mentors is that many referees and assistants could not identify deliberate viciousness if it came with a letter of introduction, and are frequently proved wrong by TV scrutiny, there is no excuse for continually disputing decisions, often in a manner that falls into the category of violent conduct.

Having watched Tuesday night's compelling action on Sky, I later caught up with the views of the BBC pundits Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, who shared the opinion that players on both sides came close to pushing Poll too far (from my perch, Wayne Rooney was exceedingly fortunate to stay on the field), adding that more punitive steps should be taken.

A former manager of my acquaintance argues that sending off players for verbal abuse or fining their employers may not be enough. "The only answer may be to deduct points from clubs who do not observe a proper code of behaviour," he said.

We have to remember that with so much at stake managers and coaches are stoking hotter and hotter fires in their pupils, believing that the only way to get them to play at a proper level of intensity is to bang a drum loudly and constantly. It is also a fact that the managers privately admit to baiting officials, a practice made easier since Fifa foolishly set out touchline areas from which instructions can be issued. "It amazes me how much we can get away with," I was told this week.

Not that dissent, even on this week's scale, is a modern phenomenon. Nothing I have ever come across about the 1963 European Cup final in which Benfica defeated Real Madrid 5-3, mentions an extraordinary incident involving the referee, the late Leo Horn of the Netherlands.

Having denied Real Madrid's second claim for a penalty, Horn was surrounded by irate players, including Ferenc Puskas, who repeatedly spat into the air. The Hungarian was then seen to pick something from the floor and hurl it into the crowd. It was a gold-plated whistle presented to Horn by the Dutch Football Federation.

The following day I went to see Horn, a textile manufacturer, at his office in Amsterdam. I wanted to know why this huge man, a judo black belt who had fought with the Dutch resistance movement, had not even cautioned Puskas. "What you don't know is that I threw my whistle at Puskas," Horn said. "It hit him in the ear."

Nobody would suggest this as behaviour becoming to a referee but in a curious way it falls into the category of man management that people in football keep going on about. The apparent desire of the authorities for firmness has been impaired by failure to eliminate practices that have spread from the European mainland. Brian Barwick, in his first statement as chief executive of the Football Association, called for Tuesday's game to be played in the best possible spirit. The truth of it is that if Poll had followed the letter of the law the reputations of both clubs would now be in shreds.