James Lawton: Time for Wenger to stand up and break the circle of deceit

Arsenal manager's refusal to condemn Pires's dive smacks of hypocrisy and wastes the opportunity to make referees more accountable
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The Independent Football

It is still not too late for Arsène Wenger to do something far, far better than he has never done before in that area of his professional life which shames the quite brilliant rest of it.

It is still not too late for Arsène Wenger to do something far, far better than he has never done before in that area of his professional life which shames the quite brilliant rest of it.

He could look at the film of the incident which rescued his Arsenal a point against Portsmouth at Highbury last Saturday and declare, unequivocally, that his player, Robert Pires, was guilty of cheating remarkably brazenly even by today's appalling standards.

Pires did it when he collided with the defender Dejan Stefanovic and suckered referee Alan Wiley into a penalty decision that made a travesty of the remainder of the match - and created a new low in the working dialogue between players and officials.

By his own lights, Wenger has already broken new ground in allowing that Arsenal were lucky to get the penalty decision. He added, "It's difficult to say whether he [Pires] was touched or not."

The inference has to be that on this occasion Wenger actually saw the incident, in which case, a professional football man of long and distinguished service can hardly expect to be taken seriously when he claims any element of doubt about what really happened.

What Pires did was a standard cheating manoeuvre. He stuck out his leg, creating a contact that Stefanovic was plainly intent on avoiding, and he went down. Later the defender reported that Pires had said to him, "Sorry, that was the referee's decision and we can't change it now."

Perhaps not. But we could come out into the open and make a real contribution to solving a problem that is dealing relentless damage to the image of the game. No one can argue with the professional consensus within football that refereeing standards have become utterly erratic, in some cases outrageously below what should be reasonably expected, but when an official is so blatantly hoodwinked by a player of Pires's quality, we get a grim picture of a breakdown in trust.

What makes the Arsenal crime so disgusting is the rage with which the club react to the decisions that go against them. Most recently, Sol Campbell was given implicit support by the club in his pathetic claim that he was the victim of a conspiracy of officials. What Wenger doesn't seem to grasp is the impact a gesture of honesty would have on what has always been the biggest obstacle to an improvement in the performance of referees.

If Wenger did own up to the fact that Pires had indeed cheated his way to a penalty, he would announce that something more than pure self-interest was at work on the professional side of the game. He would invite us to look at referees in a new and much more steadily questioning way. Through the history of the game in this country, the referee has been an untouchable, God-like figure. The establishment has backed him, right or wrong, quite relentlessly.

Now, consider the implication of a Wenger admission that his player had deliberately conned referee Wiley. It would tell the Football Association that here was a referee who had made an extremely serious mistake. It would surely require them to call for film and to examine the incident in a way they are not required to do while Wenger and/or Pires refuse to come clean. This might lead to the stunning conclusion that for once a referee had got something wrong, and utterly so.

What would be the benefit for Wenger, or in similar circumstances, a Sir Alex Ferguson or Gérard Houllier? It would, and not so subtly, put referees in a new and much less sympathetic light. It would say that one of the game's top men has made his players and himself accountable and if they can do it, why not the referees, the last men in football who are obliged to face up to their mistakes, however catastrophic to the proper running of a game.

Why not Rob Styles who made a parody of discipline with a flood of yellow and red at Goodison Park at the weekend in a match which, while poorly played and never a monument to bonhomie, was almost totally devoid of either sustained malice or violence. Why not Steve Dunne, who allowed the Birmingham goalkeeper, Maik Taylor, to be knocked off the ball in mid-air by Fulham's Luis Boa Morte and the resulting goal to stand in defiance of the long held tradition that goalkeepers should not only not be touched but also protected from anything like a hard look?

No one disputes the difficulty of the referee's job, or the mounting pressure they face as the stakes rise so heavily at the top of the game. But as Alan Shearer said after Styles's one-man version of a ticker-tape parade at Goodison, players and managers are also not without a certain professional tension. What is so palpably absent is anything like a proper working relationship between players and managers on one side, and officials on the other.

Where the players and managers can most positively influence the parlous situation is in the degree of their honesty. In the case of Wenger it has long been obvious that ill-discipline is the one major flaw in his otherwise superbly realised team of talent and imagination. Last season it was a weakness that cost him another Premiership title.

That one of his most gifted players, and a recent Footballer of the Year, should so obviously cheat his way to a penalty is disquieting evidence that at Arsenal there remains a strain of resistance to the idea that a team of such brilliant playing resources is best suited to a much purer expression of their ability. This, as Wenger hinted the other day in a television interview, might be seen as a romantic view of Premiership realities. But what, in the end, is the alternative? Only a vicious circle of deceit and malignant spirit.

Wenger allowed that Arsenal were lucky to get their penalty, but it wasn't really a matter of good fortune. It was a tawdry piece of gamesmanship and Arsenal should be a lot better than this. Wenger, who has brought many gifts to English football, has the perfect chance to prove that this is so. But we can be pretty sure he will not act. It is the most depressing evidence that in English football even the most brilliant, and otherwise romantic, of coaches cannot do what is best for the game. Ultimately, Wenger and his players suffer most. They cannot see the damage they inflict by their own hands on a luminous, but still too often, self-defeating team.