Spoiling the feast: Bright future menaced by an old brutality

Cheating and cynical intimidation by players threatens the World Cup's banquet of attacking football - but referees are hindered, not helped, by Fifa in tackling it
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The Independent Football

The bright lights may not have gone out, not yet, but maybe we would be wise to lay in a few candles. Suddenly there is an unsettled front.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming as the stakes began to be raised in this 18th World Cup which started so brilliantly, almost innocently.

But it was still a jarring shock - how quick we are to forgive someone or something we love - when the Italian full-back Fabio Grosso, who, significantly or not, plays his football in the Mafioso capital, Palermo, proved that the cynical tradition which will always be embodied by Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal 20 years ago, is still malignantly alive in the tournament that had so strongly suggested it was immune from the progressive disease of cheating and physical abuse.

This didn't stop an outbreak of national celebration across Italy - as it almost certainly would not have in most corners of the football world, including England - when Grosso's dive persuaded the Spanish referee, Luis Medina Cantalejo, to award his team the match-winning penalty that ended the superbly conducted campaign of Guus Hiddink's Australia.

An Italian engineer in Padua, declared: "I'm not going out in my car and tooting my horn for a bunch of thieves," but he had no illusions that he would win any arguments in his local bar.

Unfortunately, the fears of a corruption of all the promise of the last few thrilling weeks - when teams like Argentina, Spain and Ghana, last night's brave challengers to the champions, Brazil, held out the possibility of a new golden age of international football - had already carried beyond one act of desperate chicanery.

The pattern was even confirmed when the old charmers of Brazil and Ghana produced some thrilling football yesterday in Dortmund, a pleasure deeply marred by the fact that two players, Adriano of Brazil and Asamoah Gyan of Ghana were booked for outrageous diving, the latter being sent off after collecting his second yellow card.

Ukraine and Switzerland, who looked exhausted after fighting their way out of the group stages, may have confirmed it as Black Monday when they played a goalless round of 16 game of stupefying tedium, but then Sunday had not exactly been a fiesta of football: England played their technically and aesthetically horrific game with Ecuador, and then the Netherlands betrayed the revolution that their young coach, and former luminous star, Marco van Basten, was supposed to be making amid the rubble of an old football empire.

The Russian referee Valentin Ivanov has, rightly, taken much of the criticism for the blizzard of four red and 16 yellow cards - a loss of control that makes him only marginally less of an outsider for the final in Berlin than England's ill-starred Graham Poll - but there was no question that the Dutch brought a negative, bruising approach to their game with Portugal. Their mean streak contaminated a World Cup they had looked likely to enhance.

Van Basten claimed that Ivanov had made a "mess" of the game but a lot of the stains were, beyond doubt, of anOranje hue.

Ivanov's biggest mistake was to delay the dismissal of the Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz after his brutal and potentially devastating assault on Cristiano Ronaldo. This was a thunderous echo of past brutalities, including that of 40 years ago when Pele was kicked out of the tournament in the group games by Portugal and Hungary, with the devastating result that when Brazil returned to Europe eight years later they did so with an iron-clad team almost completely devoid of the old sumptuous skills.

This, no doubt, is an extreme comparison, but there was a ugly aspect to the Dutch game that begat some Portuguese cynicism of its own and no doubt the great Luis Figo can consider himself fortunate to avoid video trial for his mild but unmistakable head-butting of Mark von Bommel.

Sepp Blatter, the president of football's world governing body, Fifa, announced that the referee was worthy of a yellow card himself and claimed the official was unable to match the players' level of performance. This was Swiss humbug of the purest kind. You give referees a set of instructions that make them little more than traffic wardens handing out statutory tickets, then get out the soap and the water and wash your hands of them when they fail to show the initiative and common sense that you have systematically stripped from their thinking.

Here, surely, is the most worrying aspect of a World Cup that must still be believed in as a potential example for the future shape of the game. If referees are to be at once protected - as Ivanov has been in the Figo affair - and stripped of all personal authority by a set of bureaucratic instructions the dire, emasculating possibility is that the game will lapse into something approaching a non-contact sport. Certainly, the dismissal of Sweden's Teddy Lucic, for two yellow cards of risible triviality in the desperate struggle against the rampant Germans, called into question the whole basis of this tournament's system of justice.

None of this, however, is enough to cause an abandonment of hope that we have been excited by something more than a fancy shop window of the world game. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the downturn of Sunday and Monday, may prove to be merely a lapse, a simple weeding out of teams who promised a lot more than they could possibly deliver.

On Friday there is, for example, the game which stimulates all the football senses. Argentina's glorious performance against Serbia & Montenegro in the group play, and their ultimately magnificent response to the challenge of Mexico in the round of 16 surely lit fires that will not easily die - not, at least, before the collision with Jürgen Klinsmann's Germany.

No, the World Cup is not dying on its feet, but after the early euphoria we cannot assume that its success is a formality. Fifa has to give referees more reason to believe they can help shape events with their experience, and their understanding of football life, that they are not mere lap-dogs of the committee room.

They cannot hand the officials a set of dos and don'ts detached from the flesh and blood of the real game and still expect fluent, thrilling matches. They cannot expect minions to behave like intuitive, independent operators before the rage of desperate teams, impassioned fans and mean-eyed assessors.

Some officials have already been caught - sometimes to the cost of both the players and their own careers - between the wishes of their masters and their instincts for what is right and wrong on a football field.

Most important of all, teams competing against the brilliance of a side like Argentina have to follow the path of Mexico. They have to play with courage, have to reproduce the best of themselves and not resort to those tactics of the Netherlands, which came as such a crushing reversal of all we had been led to believe about the new age of total football under Van Basten.

In one of the bravest speeches of any coach on the road to Germany the great Dutch striker declared: "I have told my young players we have to be brave enough to play to win - and not be afraid to lose."

For the rest of this still potentially great tournament there is no more encouraging message. The author is gone, in the most disappointing of circumstances, but what he said is, thankfully, still alive.

Hall of shame: Red cards at World Cups

1930 (Venue) Uruguay 1

1934 Italy 1

1938 France 4

1950 Brazil 0

1954 Switzerland 3

1958 Sweden 3

1962 Chile 6

1966 England 5

1970 Mexico 0

1974 West Germany 5

1978 Argentina 3

1982 Spain 5

1986 Mexico 8

1990 Italy 16

1994 United States 15

1998 France 22

2002 Korea/Japan 17

2006 Germany 25 *

* red cards up to the quarter finals

Red cards at 2006 so far...

Angola Andre; Australia Brett Emerton; Croatia Dario Simic, Josip Simunic; Cz Republic Jan Polak, Tomas Ujfalusi; Ghana Asamoah Gyan; Ivory Coast Cyrille Domoraud; Italy Daniele De Rossi, Marco Materazzi; Mexico Luis Perez; Netherlands Khalid Boulahrouz, Giovanni van Bronckhorst; Portugal Costinha, Deco; Poland Radoslaw Sobolewski; Serbia & Mon Mateja Kezman, Albert Nadj; Sweden Teddy Lucic; Togo Jean-Paul Abalo; Tunisia Zied Jaziri; Trin & Tob Avery John; Ukraine Vladislav Vashchuk; USA Pablo Mastroeni, Eddie Pope.