Another "Super Sunday," another marquee match laid low by the laws of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, when referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot following Laurent Koscielny’s 10th-minute bear hug of Edin Dzeko during the English Premier League clash between Arsenal and Manchester City, I had no issue with the decision. It was what soccer pundits like to call "a stonewall penalty." What I didn’t agree with was the red card.
I felt even more aggrieved some 65 minutes later when the ref decided to "even things up" by sending City’s Vincent Kompany for an early bath. No foul. No card, in my opinion, which the FA apparently agreed with when it overturned the card two days later.
Of course, both dismissals were judgment calls. IFAB, the International Football Association Board, which is responsible for making the laws, stipulates that using foul play to deny an obvious goal-scoring opportunity is a red-card offense. The operative word is "obvious," and clearly that’s open to interpretation. But, in Mike Dean’s eyes, Koscielny’s action was blatant. So, despite already conceding a penalty, the Frenchman was made to suffer the double whammy.
Similarly, in Dean’s view, Kompany's tackle either fell into the category of serious foul play or violent conduct, which, under the laws, gave the ref carte blanche to issue a carte rouge, so to speak.
So, technically, even though I didn't see the undeniable need for a red card, Dean was not wrong. However, as a fan, I still felt hard done by. Let me elaborate. Whether in the stadium or at home, soccer fans pay to watch a "match." That term, at the very least, implies equality of opportunity for both sides -- a level playing field, if you like. However, when the ref sends someone off he creates nothing but inequality and imbalance, and that's not what it says on the ticket.
Of course, no one wants to sanction foul play. Goals are the game's biggest attraction and violent conduct is one of its biggest turn-offs. But while it's incumbent on the officials to promote one and discourage the other, I also believe the game has a responsibility to honor its contract with the paying customer.
Soccer is in the business of entertainment, yet all too often the audience is shortchanged because the main protagonists are kicked off the stage well before the curtain comes down. Regardless of your allegiance, did the game benefit as a spectacle from Arsenal being depleted for an hour? No, it didn't. It changed what could have been a fascinating cut-and-thrust encounter into a training ground attack-against-defense drill. By the time the odds were evened by Kompany’s card, the game was dead and the drama lost for good.
Especially in tough economic times, providing value for money is paramount for any business (a requirement endorsed by the furor over ticket prices for Sunday’s game at the Emirates). Unfortunately, nowadays I don't believe soccer fans always get that bang for their buck due to hair-trigger refereeing and laws that allow little space between harshness and leniency.
So here’s my suggestion: Fouls in the box result in a penalty but no red card. If some feel that's insufficient punishment, I propose the idea of benching the culprit in a sin-bin for a prescribed period of time, or, and this is my preference, imposing a mandatory substitution of the offender. That way the player pays the price for his action, as does the team by losing its first-choice lineup, but the integrity of the match isn't permanently ruined for the fans.
For denying a goal-scoring opportunity outside the box, or committing a serious or violent foul anywhere in the attacking half of the field, the same punishment should apply, alongside the awarding of a "penalty" from a second spot 18 yards out. That would act as a deterrent to foul play while maintaining the ref's right to make judgment calls. Crucially, though, it would still preserve the match as a fair fight for the audience.
I'm open to variations, but whatever the fine details, the aim should be to punish the guilty and compensate the victims, while keeping 22 players on the field whenever ethically possible.
A red card should be the last resort, used only for ultra-violent or repeat offenses. After all, we pay to see a match, not a mismatch, don't we?
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