Scolari shoots from lip but misses

Referee is convenient scapegoat as Portugal and Netherlands play blame game instead of putting boot in to own players. By Phil Shaw in Nuremberg
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The Independent Football

"Sometimes, football is like war," reflected Luiz Felipe Scolari, as if seeking to mitigate events at the Frankendstadion. Sometimes, football people should engage their brains before opening their mouths.

A matter of yards from where the Portugal coach was addressing the media after the bitterly fought win over the Netherlands, millions of Germans once stood at mass Nazi rallies to hear Adolf Hitler rant about waging real war.

In the immediate aftermath of the match, which ended in the first nine-a-side in the 76-year history of the World Cup finals, both Scolari and his Dutch counterpart, Marco van Basten, laid the blame for the hostilities squarely on the Russian referee. Valentin Ivanov, son of a distinguished former Soviet Union player, had booked 12 players, four of them twice, as the game swiftly spiralled out of his control.

Poor Ivanov, the ultimately hapless, yet all-too-convenient scapegoat. Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa - the organisation which has had four years to identify and prepare what are supposedly the best referees in the world - put the boot in to him as surely as any Portuguese or Dutch player almost as soon as the six minutes of stoppage time were over.

Ivanov, sneered Blatter, had not been "at the same level" as the participants. Well, he had a point. As players tumbled to the floor in instalments, rolling around as if hit by a sniper's bullet, or ran 50 yards to join in the formation jostling, the referee remained on his feet, valiantly attempting to restore a modicum of order.

In line with Fifa's instruction to come down heavily on foul play, Ivanov had been brave enough to caution a player, the relentlessly provocative Mark van Bommel, with barely a minute played. But five minutes later, when he cautioned another Dutchman, Khalid Boulahrouz, the severity of the studs-up assault on Cristiano Ronaldo's thigh was such that he should have reached for his red card.

That was his first mistake; the moment when, one suspects, the players sensed a weakness they could exploit. But referees are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Had Ivanov sent off Boulahrouz then, Scolari and van Basten would doubtless have decreed that he had ruined the spectacle almost before it had started. The argument is familiar: one incompetent individual spoiling what the professionals have trained so hard for and what the public have saved their money to watch. Its inherent flaw is that it absolves the players of responsibility for their actions.

So Ivanov is condemned for only cautioning Luis Figo after he "nutted" van Bommel (Costinha had already been correctly banished and Deco followed in more debatable circumstances).

It was a bad error, certainly, though it is easy to imagine him being vilified for reducing the contest to an unequal farce with nine men against 11.

When Scolari was pressed about his captain's action - which would have been a crime on the streets of Nuremberg - the Brazilian spouted more pseudo philosophy topped off by yaboo politics.

"Jesus Christ said we should turn the other cheek, but Figo isn't Jesus. And I still thought he was more correct than the Dutchman."

This was nonsensical to the point of dishonesty. Van Basten made more sense when he talked of Portugal frustrating his youngish team with their "experience, tricks and time-wasting" (the headline in the Dutch daily De Telegraaf was "We better, They cleverer").

Alas, van Basten did not condemn the elbow in Figo's face that earned Boulahrouz his overdue marching orders, or Giovanni van Bronckhorst's dismissal, homing in on the "mess" Ivanov had made. It is to be hoped that van Basten, a bright young coach, will come to focus less on an official losing the plot under intolerable pressure, and more on why the Oranje twice failed to make an extra man count.

As for Scolari, he is a touchline Tommy Smith, a bruiser who shoots from the lip and is not always to be taken too seriously. But as one who is fond of the military allusion, he should be more aware of the context in which he sounds off. And of the adage which states that the first casualty of war is truth.