Old Trafford fracas gives FA chance to crack down

Disciplinarians seem certain to bring Arsenal to account after ruling stopped them using video evidence in Pires incident
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The Independent Football

Arsenal players who swarmed around Ruud van Nistelrooy at the end of Sunday's match with Manchester United and sent a wave of disgust across the country have, it seems, played into the hands of a Football Association determined to make the club face up to the need for self-discipline.

Before Sunday's gut-wrenching scenes involving Martin Keown, Lauren, Ray Parlour and Ashley Cole, the FA had already considered prosecuting Arsenal's Robert Pires for bringing the game into disrepute following his now notorious dive for a penalty against Portsmouth the weekend before last.

The ruling body's new chief executive, Mark Palios, is determined to clean up the image of the game and he was appalled by the negative publicity for the game that came with the Pires incident - and Arsenal's failure to acknowledge that their celebrated French international had been caught out in such a transparent act of cheating.

But after a top level meeting at FA headquarters in Soho Square, when lawyers were consulted, it was decided that without the ability to call up video evidence the chances of making the charge against Pires stick were quite remote. The affair has brought a new harsh spotlight on the Fifa-imposed rule that disciplinary action can only be supported by film evidence if an official has not reacted to an offence, presumably became he hasn't seen it.

Without film evidence painting a damning case against him, Pires could argue without fear of any contradiction that he was moving at speed and that he had not contrived the collision which ended with the referee pointing to the spot.

It would be his word against a sceptical world. This remains the case despite the fact that the official, Alan Wiley, has, after reviewing the film, intimated that he will admit that he was wrong to give a yellow card to the Portsmouth defender Dejan Stefanovic, who had claimed that Pires had apologised after the match.

But because of the rules governing disciplinary procedures set by Fifa, the FA are powerless to use the film evidence in any prosecution of Pires. An FA official also reported yesterday that Wiley's written admission that it was an error to book Stefanovic had yet to arrive in Soho Square.

The order firmly enforced by Fifa is that the authority of the referee has to be at all times sacrosanct and that the free use of video would inevitably undermine that authority. The policy is most aggressively championed by the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, who recently strongly countered moves in Germany for video evidence to be used at the discretion of disciplinary committees.

"It is very frustrating," said one FA source yesterday, "when you get some enormous controversy like the Pires affair but cannot take action because the most vital evidence cannot be used. The controversial events at Old Trafford came at the end of the game - and the referee took no action. All available film will be studied closely by the FA."

Meanwhile, English football is treated to the controversy of Van Nistelrooy being accused by the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, and the club's captain, Patrick Vieira, of being a cheat - and also being roughed up and verbally abused by a gang of Arsenal players.

Wenger's smearing of Van Nistelrooy, his refusal to condemn Pires and his ignoring of the post-game behaviour of his players has left him open to a charge of bringing the game into disrepute. It is a stance which is made all the more bizarre by his team's record of 52 red cards in the course of his six-year regime - 32 more than United in the same period.

Aggravating the problem, events of the last few years have increasingly suggested, is the official insistence on protecting the reputation of referees whenever possible. This, the FA is beginning to see, is becoming a huge barrier to the enforcement of consistent discipline. If a referee makes a mistake it can only be rectified, in terms of punishment for the true culprit, by the official's admission that he didn't see an offence. This has already produced scores of embarrassing instances of football justice dying on the vine.

Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the FA, said yesterday: "The FA are being dictated to by Fifa and under the present international charter there is nothing they can do about it. As long as the judgement of the referee is considered sacrosanct by Fifa, this is going to remain the case."

Meanwhile, Robert Pires goes unpunished. Some of his Arsenal colleagues are not likely to be so fortunate, however. They committed their crimes behind the back of the referee as he walked off the field. Their huge mistake was to forget that the television cameras hadn't been switched off. This meant they were beyond the protection of a law made for referees rather than the good name of football.

No appeal three times when the referee might have changed his mind in hindsight

13 SEPT 2003

Arsenal 1 Portsmouth 1 (Premiership)
Arsenal were awarded a penalty - which Thierry Henry scored to secure a draw - after Robert Pires fell over after making contact with Dejan Stefanovic's foot. Replays showed that Pires had moved his leg inside Stefanovic's after the Portsmouth defender had pulled back from the challenge. The referee, Alan Wiley, booked Stefanovic, meaning the incident was "dealt with" (and cannot be looked at again using video evidence) although his subsequent rescinding of that yellow card muddied the waters.

6 JANUARY 2001

Carlisle 0 Arsenal 1 (FA Cup third round)
Carlisle's Richard Prokas made a two-footed lunge on Patrick Vieira that broke the Frenchman's shinguard, a moment that was caught on videotape for posterity. The incident was seen by the referee, Steve Lodge, albeit not clearly. Lodge did not consider it worthy of a caution. That meant the incident had been "dealt with". No further action was taken even when Prokas apologised for recklessness afterwards. The FA said: "If Mr Lodge says he saw the tackle and decided at the time that no action was appropriate then that is the end of the matter."

14 SEPT 2002

Leeds 1 Man Utd 0 (Premiership)
David Beckham elbowed Lee Bowyer as the pair chased a clearance. The referee, Jeff Winter, awarded a free-kick to Leeds, meaning that the incident was dealt with at the time and no further action was possible. There was no question that Beckham's elbow hit Bowyer although Sir Alex Ferguson argued there was no intent. The FA said: "The only way a decision can be reversed or looked at further is if the match official advised the FA that he had not dealt with the issue in full."

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