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Changing football’s culture - A cure for cancer?

A cancerous culture exists within football that must be addressed if the beautiful game is to live up to its responsibility as the world’s most loved sport. It is time for the games top brass to take decisive action before the cancer spreads further. As a passionate supporter of football I believe now is the time to act. I propose a 5 point treatment plan to eliminate the disease and deliver a step change performance improvement in the culture of the game and how it is played. 

The events in Paris last Wednesday during the World Cup play-off between France and Ireland have placed the culture of the game firmly under the microscope again. Thierry Henry’s hand (literally) in the wining goal that saw France qualify for South Africa is the latest physical manifestation of the disease that eats away at the game. What has this latest sorry episode shown us?

The symptoms  

Firstly, that cheating is accepted practice within the game. It was interesting to observe closely the comments of the Irish players after the game. To a man they absolved Thierry Henry of blame and rather vented their ire at the match officials for missing the blatant act of cheating. In the same situation they conceded they probably would have done the same thing. This tells you a lot about the maladies in the game. If I can get away with it is fair game (excuse the pun!). Diving, play acting, feigning injury, attempting to get other players booked or sent off, disputing decision are accepted norms in football.

What have Diego Maradona, Fabio Grosso, Rivaldo and Slaven Bilic all got in common? Three things:

  1. They all blatantly cheated during critical World Cup Final games
  2. They were all world famous players, dare I say role models to kids all over the world, when they did it
  3. They suffered no sanction for their actions, on the contrary they all benefitted hugely from cheating.

There is an endless list of examples that can be placed beside Thierry Henry’s misdemeanour. Diego Maradona’s Hand of God, Fabio Grosso’s dive in the  2006 World Cup against Australia, Rivaldo’s shameless play acting to get Hakan Unsal a red card  in the 2002 World Cup or what about Slaven Bilic in the 1998 semi final conning the referee into a red card for Laurent Blanc which saw the Frenchman miss the final. We are spoilt for choice.

Secondly, the authorities have allowed this culture to flourish by not acting with any urgency either to prevent such events from happening in the first place or taking punitive action when they do occur. None of the high profile players above were sanctioned in any way for their outrageous acts of cheating. 

Thirdly, that all of the responsibility for catching the cheats rests with the match officials who are given no practical support from the authorities. And when it all goes wrong, as it did last Wednesday, they are hung out to dry to carry the can. It wasn’t Henry who shouldered the blame it was Martin Hansson and his assistant referee.

The side effects

Football is a powerful influence in modern society. The omnipresence of the most popular team sport on the planet has created a social responsibility that the game’s authorities are only too aware of. To their credit the FIFA corporate social responsibility programme is doing great work around the world. Their mission to “develop the game, touch the world, build a better future” is backed up by initiatives such as the ‘1 Goal: Education for all’ project. But this great work is undermined by what happens on the pitch.

Kids all over the world imitate their idols. When they see the best footballers in the world demonstrating the lowest standards of behaviour what do we expect to happen? Two simple examples illustrate this clearly.

A close friend of mine is a teacher at a leading public school in England. The school plays rugby union in their first term, football in the next and cricket at the end of the school year. He watches his pupils play rugby union and they accept all the referee decisions without question or dispute. The same group of players, with the same master in charge, behave differently when on a soccer field. They dispute every decision of the referee, shout abuse at the official and act in a way that is out of character for them normally. Why? Because that is what footballers do.

My seven year old son is fanatical about sport. Football is his first love and if he isn’t playing on the street or with his local team he is watching endless re-runs of games on television. I have noticed that whenever he plays football, whether with his friends in the street or in a game, he spits on the ground all the time. He doesn’t do this any other time other than when playing football even when he plays other sports. Why? Because that is what footballers do. 

These examples may seem trivial but actually they show just how critical it is that we attack the malignancy within the game before it spreads further. We are raising generations of kids to be conditioned into reinforcing this cancerous culture. 

The prescription

So what is the treatment plan?

Platitudes and well meaning statements will not cure the patient. Cancer requires aggressive and direct treatment. And it must be caught at source before it attacks the healthy cells within the body. The same must be done within football. The remedies must be swift, direct, practical and fundamentally tackle the on field behaviour that is part of the root cause.

Here are five initiatives that will dramatically improve the underlying culture within the game:

1. Get the critical decisions right

  • Use video technology – many other sports have embraced technology and it works. There are many examples of team sports that show how it can be done without disrupting the flow of the game. Video replays should be used solely for goals where the referee suspects there is an issue. It would be the referees call to ‘go upstairs’ and it would ensure that the key decision in a game is right.  
  • Introduce goal line assistants – the current experiment in the Europa League should be extended to give the officials an extra pair of eyes for critical incidents in the penalty area including pulling of shirts in crowded areas, adjudicating on fouls in the box, determining if the ball is over the line for goals, goal kicks and corners. This combined with the use of video technology will virtually eliminate the possibility of officials getting key decisions in the penalty area wrong.

2. Let everyone hear what is going on

  • Mic up referees – let the viewing public hear the referee throughout the game. This will create far greater awareness of the input of the referee in the management of the game, create greater understanding of the decisions made and most importantly make it impossible for players to abuse referees as they currently do as it will be broadcast to all watching.  

3. Cut out the cynical fouls and acts

  • Introduce sin bins – for cynical fouls that currently merit a yellow card put the offending player in the sin bin for ten minutes. Far too many yellow cards are issued in games. This indicates that as a sanction it has no meaning. It is not changing player behaviour. Ten minutes off the field will. Watch the average number of yellow cards drop rapidly as soon as the punishment has real teeth.
  • Extend the advantage law – referees must make instant decisions about blowing the whistle or letting play go on. Very often when they do let play go on the apparent advantage does not materialise. In Rugby Union the referees have far greater latitude and can let the situation develop before determining if the team in possession has genuine advantage. If not they go back for the penalty. Fouling should be penalized not rewarded. This would give far greater potential for the fouling team to be punished.
  • Penalise persistent team fouls – in many games persistent fouls are committed on key players. Referees should have the power, as they do in other sports, to issue a general team warning and the next offender from that team is yellow carded for a similar offence, even if it is that player’s first infraction.
  • Introduce penalty goals – do not allow the potential for blatant cheating to be rewarded. In the instance where a goal is prevented by a blatant act of foul play e.g. a defender handling the ball on the goal line to prevent a goal – award a penalty goal. The player should still be red carded but do not allow a situation where this act could be rewarded if the opposition miss the resulting penalty kick. It is only a matter of time before this happens in a major game and the guilty player will be rewarded for his action whilst the poor unfortunate who misses the penalty is the one that is ultimately punished.
  • Play on when players go down injured – far too often players go down with apparent injuries which are merely a ruse to slow down the game or prevent a team in possession from continuing to play. Don’t stop the game. Let the physio treat players if they need it as the game continues as other sports do. Very quickly you will find that players will stop feigning injury if there is nothing to be gained from doing so.

4. Follow up rigourously after the event

  • Appoint Citing officials – bring in citing officials that have the power to review video evidence after games and charge players with offences that were not picked up by the match officials. Again most other sports have a successful model in place that can be replicated.
  • Allow for severe retrospective punishment – where a player has clearly deceived the match officials in a game (e.g. by diving, feigning injury, play acting) severe punishments must follow. Lengthy suspensions must be handed down in these cases. Henry, Maradona, Grosso, Rivaldo and Bilic all should have spent long period on the sidelines for their blatant cheating. Every player must be clear that if they cheat they will be punished.


5. Make the players responsible for their actions

  • Place the onus on players – an experiment in Germany allows referees to ask players if they have offended in certain circumstances. If they said yes a free kick is awarded and no further action taken against the player. If he denies it and is subsequently shown by video evidence to have lied then an automatic lengthy suspension would follow. Golfers self regulate and in many cases with very serious consequences (e.g. Hale Irwin and Ian Woosnam both lost British Opens by calling fouls on themselves that would not have been spotted by anyone if they had not admitted them). Put this system in place to make the responsibility the players and use video evidence, citing officers and retrospective punishment to monitor compliance and take punitive action where players blatantly transgress.  

The recovery process

All of the above are aimed at taking action to change what happens on the field and create a step change improvement in the playing culture so football and its players can proudly stand up as genuine role models. I have not tackled the off field culture that is also undermining the game. That is a discussion for another day.

The football authorities in the UK have a major influence on setting this new agenda. Due to the historical role as founders of the game, the FAs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make up four of the eight votes on the body (IFAB) that acts as the custodian of the Laws of the Game. Now is the time for them to use this influence to prescribe the remedies that will cure the cancer.

Fair play is at the very core of football. That is why FIFA place so much emphasis on it. But that core is rotten and riddled with cancer based on what we see on the football field. The game’s leaders must have the courage to treat this with radical surgery as prescribed above and rid the game of this disease once and for all. And if FIFA do this then I will say “fair play”.


Brian MacNeice is Performance Consultant and Founding Director at Kotinos Partners, based in Dublin.


November 2009

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