James Lawton: Time for Uefa to stop ducking and diving once and for all

Wenger was not saying anything that came with a molecule of moral value
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The Independent Football

A lot of people think we should move on from the Eduardo affair, with minimum fallout and as quickly as we can, but a lot of people are wrong.

Perhaps one point should be lit up in neon for fear that misunderstanding of something so vital to the health of the most popular game in the world will continue to be lost in mountains of obfuscation.

It is that the Eduardo affair could so easily have been the Drogba or the Rooney or the Gerrard affair and the only difference is that the armies of complainants would be dressed in different colours. The most important thing is that at last an important principle has been established at a high level of the game. If Uefa keeps its nerve, it is that players cannot be allowed to continue to make cheating an integral part of football.

That this scabrous ambition has been, for the time being, achieved is indicated by the extent of the dismay that has greeted Uefa's agreement that what happened at the Emirates last week when Eduardo threw himself to the ground and won a penalty was a matter for the ruling body's urgent attention.

The big problem, we are now told, is that Uefa will be obliged to investigate and judge every similar incident when a referee is completely hoodwinked and the integrity of the game has, once again, gone to hell.

But is this a chore to be dismissed or a challenge to welcome? A lot depends on how you see football best spending its vast resources. Should so much of it go exclusively on creating a player plutocracy which is beginning to challenge reason or should quite a bit of it be siphoned off for a proper supervision of the game and the enforcement of some decent standards?

Also vital to the argument is how you value the role of technology at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The conviction here is that it should be vastly extended, partly to assist increasingly pressurised match officials, and partly to attack most effectively the tide of cheating which so frequently distorts fair competition.

One thing is certain. No top manager is ever going to put the interests of the game before his own and his team's. This means that reform will never come from within – the reaction of Eduardo's manager, Arsène Wenger, has made this abundantly clear over the last few days. He, like all his rivals, has had so many opportunities to make a stand against diving, which has become so commonplace it is plainly seen by many as a standard and unshakeable part of the culture of modern English football.

Wenger, who we keep saying to the point of weariness stands for so much that is best in football, further confused the issue at the weekend when he sought to draw a line between diving and persistent fouling. On balance he thought diving was less "anti-football". Could we all stop for a moment and weigh quite what Wenger was saying?

Well, of course he wasn't saying anything, at least not something that came with a molecule of moral value. He was throwing another clump of mud in the water. Persistent fouling demands its own punishment because, of course, it is another form of cheating, and it is a duty of referees to enforce the laws. However, to make a case for diving being less "anti-football" than any other perversion of the game was at best mischievous, at worst a travesty of honest debate. He said that for consistency Lionel Messi must be hauled before authority if he was seen to head-butt an opponent. Where is the problem in this?

It is not about Eduardo or Wenger or Messi – it is about what can pass for reasonable behaviour on a football field.

Diving, whether Wenger and all the other managers who so relentlessly see everything from their own perspective like it or not, is in football the most visible form of a rottenness that is now hopping from one sport to another like a monster flea.

Who can name a front-line sport unaffected by the contagion? Rugby union has a nasty condition indeed, compounded by conspiratorial attempts at the cover-up of the most sickening details. Formula One is immersed in a third major scandal in a few years, charges that a driver was told to crash his car deliberately now being added to proven cases of massive industrial espionage and lying by a major team, McLaren, and their world champion driver, Lewis Hamilton.

Tennis is periodically hit with claims of match-fixing. Cricket has been through that miasma and now has to cope with the most craven of persistent appealing. Even golf, the game which proclaims that when you cheat you are injuring yourself more than any other, is not immune, as we were reminded by the public argument between the accused, the Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie, and his accuser, Sandy Lyle.

But then which is the sport which dominates all others, that reaches most profoundly into every corner of the world, every social class, and makes the others look like pygmies in terms of universal appeal? It is football and football, rightly or wrongly, is seen by many as the most flawed of all.

When compared to the lightly punished thuggery we have seen in rugby recently, some may argue that this is a hard claim to sustain. But then maybe they should do what Uefa has elected to do. Maybe they should rerun the Eduardo film one more time. If a sport is not infinitely reduced by such an episode, if it believes that any proper action against it is impossible in this age of technology, it is surely open to the charge that it has lost the will to cleanse itself.

Another worry, apparently, is that the media have set the agenda, responding hysterically to the promptings of a Scottish "mafia". Well, who was going to set the agenda? Was a manager going to come out and say that enough was enough? No, plainly not. There is nothing wrong with "media" pressure if it is the moving force in genuine reform and in this case we can see clearly enough that without it the Eduardo affair would be like all the other cases of bare-faced robbery that go on so routinely. It would be a thing of faint memory now, washed up with all the other fleeting controversies which donate so much free publicity to the richest league in football and are then quietly put aside, with no conclusions, no action, and, apparently, still less care.

We are not talking about an aspect of football here. It is something that should occupy both its heart and its head.

Last Saturday the celebrated Sky football panel chairman Jeff Stelling put aside his hugely popular eccentricities and attempted to engage his colleagues in a serious debate on the issue. Most exercised was the former England international and assistant Liverpool manager, Phil Thompson.

He agreed that diving was a terrible scourge, it had to be eradicated, but unfortunately Uefa had chosen the wrong approach. Now it had to leap on every case of cheating. It had put itself in a corner. To his credit, Stelling frowned several times before asking whether it was perhaps not a good thing that authority had finally been provoked into some possibly meaningful action. No, said Thompson, a can of worms had been opened.

Stelling is a fervent opponent of dead air time and soon enough he abandoned the debate, suggesting that maybe the lads were going in circles. The argument, however, remains where it has been for so many years, up in the air and shaped by one vested interest after another.

In reality, there is only one way to push it forward. It is for Uefa to indeed accept its responsibility.

The last great initiative in football administration was when Fifa banned the back pass to the goalkeeper after a World Cup of terrible sterility in Italy in 1990. There were plenty of protests at the time and one who argued against it was that superb breaker of defences, Kenny Dalglish.

Dalglish, then manager of Blackburn, argued that the back pass was part of the game, and there were other initiatives that should be tried first. "One thing I would admit, though," Dalglish said, "it will make a few defenders a lot more honest."

The hope here is that the Eduardo affair will have the same affect on all those forwards who currently cheat with blazing impunity. If it does, who will say it hasn't been worth all the trouble?

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