Football: Men in the middle causing too much muddle

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The Independent Online
WHAT with the unnecessary back-pass rule causing goalkeepers to fling themselves at opponents to make amends for the clumsiness of their own struggling defenders, and the hazy FIFA instruction that anyone who by illegal means denies an opponent an 'obvious opportunity' to score should be sent off, referees are in a state of confusion that is wide open to exploitation.

In a professional sport, anything left to a variety of interpretations is conceived as a possible weakness that can be turned to advantage. The poorly thought out FIFA dictate, which extended the 'professional foul' rule into the penalty area, was a bad adaptation of the Football League's original intention, which was to stop the blatant manhandling of attackers who were approaching goal. As a result, indecision is rife, which, surely, explains why referees are so consistently intimidated by players and managers.

Over the past few weeks inconsistency among referees has been extensive. In one match a goalkeeper brought down an opponent in the penalty area and conceded a penalty without even receiving a caution whereas FIFA say that is a sending-off offence. In another virtually identical incident the goalkeeper was sent off. In a third a goalkeeper was just outside the penalty area when a defender slammed the ball back at him from a couple of yards away. Instinctively he put his hands in the way and was sent off: handball certainly and cause for a caution, but hardly in the same category as the offence in which Peter Beardsley was hauled down by Palace's goalkeeper Nigel Martyn when he was clearly in a position to score. Martyn escaped with a caution.

The original 'professional foul' rule did not extend to the penalty area, but FIFA could not resist including it when they made their alteration. It was always believed that the conceding of a penalty was sufficient punishment. These days some referees clearly think it still is and act accordingly. Others insist on applying the letter of the law.

The Premier League people have not helped by introducing the absurd idea of having a reserve goalkeeper on the bench, which diminishes the seriousness of a goalkeeper being sent off. Before next season begins the rule should be altered, either coming back into line with the rest of the league and having only two substitutes or insisting that a goalkeeper can only be replaced by another if he is injured. But none of that will alter the farce of the present situation concerning the cautioning, sending off or otherwise of players who impede opponents who are in goalscoring situations. This is not something that only bothers us in Britain. Anyone who watches Italian football on television will see exactly the same inconsistency among referees there.

The rule was originally introduced to dissuade defenders from interfering with forwards who had gained an advantage and could be expected to score. It was never intended that the referee had to take into account the fact that Paul Gascoigne could have three or four players ahead of him but still see an 'obvious goalscoring opportunity' while our even more overweight Sunday morning striker could miss an open goal from a yard and often does. So one has to assume that having beaten the last defender, that weathered maxim 'only the goalkeeper to beat' must be the criterion.

The goalkeeper may be the best in the world or Sunday's personification of the world's blackest hangover, the principle is the same: in a one against one situation the goalkeeper is expected to be beaten. If he chooses to employ the 'professional foul' there is no justification for treating him with any more leniency than an out-field player. The law is there and has to be seen to be used. However, in the turmoil of a penalty-area scramble the situation can be less clear and more often than not the referee who sees a player collapse over the goalkeeper's body is likely to feel that there were so many variables that a sending off would be too harsh. FIFA, who have almost as many silly ideas as the EC, failed to take that into account.

If professional players continue to see some referees go to the lenient extremes of awarding free-kicks or penalties but not even taking names and others apply the ultimate sanction of sending off, they are going to believe that the ref is unsure of himself and can be intimidated. This is immediately pounced upon as a sign of weakness and leads to the ugly scenes of protest that have become commonplace - the finger pointed in his face and the aggressive asides.

At a time when the elbow in the face is increasing alarmingly, violence in the game should be a bigger issue than how a referee interprets bad rules, but glaring inconsistency makes news and, understandably, infuriates managers. Meanwhile, more sinister problems get overlooked.