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The beautiful game isn’t perfect

Suppose you’re watching a game of English football. In that case, it’s highly likely that at some point — probably towards the end of the match — one commentator will turn to the other and ask a question that goes something like this: “Say, Jim, are they full value for their lead?”

The answer to that question will depend on how both sides have conducted themselves throughout the game. Had Team B sat back and absorbed relentless pressure only to hit back on the counter and score the winner with a fluke deflection, then no, they have not given full value. Instead, they are scolded for stumbling on dumb luck and condolences are passed on to Team A.

See, it’s not enough to win a football match, you have to deserve it. 

Consider boxing. Should the fight end in a draw (especially a boring one), the conversation in the commentary booth will often shift to who won on points. Just what the criteria are for these points is not legislated anywhere but are widely understood to be attack-mindedness, enthusiasm and hard work.

Football is a sport that has one unequivocal way of registering the score on the board: putting the ball into the net. Every other metric and statistic has zero effect on declaring a winner. 

There are no style points; no bonuses for fair play; no golden snitch to be caught. And yet one of our favourite pastimes is determining who really deserved to be the winner over the 90 minutes of the game.

It is time we dissuaded ourselves of the notion of merit. Semantic annoyance aside, there are real consequences that result from us continuing to indulge in such an archaic idea.

As we approach the quarter mark of the season, one clear point of contention has cropped up: the pedantic, draconian awarding of penalties. So far we have seen the referee point to the spot 41 times in 78 games — an average of 0.53 a match. Should we continue on this trajectory, last season’s tally of 92 will be more than doubled.

More than ever we have seen the art of the spotkick come into focus and debates arise over the most effective manner to strike them. Is it the hopscotch of Bruno Fernandes and Jorginho? The swerved run-up of Salah? Or perhaps the unfussed hammering of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy?

The more important, overarching question is: why are we seeing such a sharp peak in frequency? Part of the answer has to do with the new rigid handball rules. Although technically in place since last term, new referee training and instructions to heed the guidelines more closely has ensured that it is now that we’re bearing the brunt of their effect.

But it’s also more than that. In our quest for perfect justice on the football pitch we have accidentally got exactly what we asked for. 

With the introduction of the video assistant referee meeting old-school attitudes and contemporary laws, we have a superb storm that has threatened to blow into the beauty of the game.

It was the video assistant referee that grabbed the headlines last season. The new technology produced a steady stream of clangers and headscratchers. But mitigating the frustration was the hope that these were teething problems that would inevitably reach a happy equilibrium. 

In the current game there is no such belief. 

What is becoming painfully clear is that penalties are not just an annoyance; they are on course to change the way players — and managers — approach the game. 

As alarmist as that may seem, how can we not expect the dynamics of the game to change when a finger out of place is enough to concede? Defenders running around dizzily with their hands behind their backs will not be the end of this.

Our new game of millimetres can be traced back to the seemingly innocuous belief that football should always be won by those who deserve it. That itself is a function of an unspoken conviction that the game reflects the best of humanity. It’s the belief that whereas the world is cold and unpredictable, the field is honest and just.

The truth is that it has never been. Like the anarchic surrounds of the touchline, its confines are equally subject to disorder, randomness and luck. We may believe that there is a way to produce a perfectly fair game, but that is probably an illusion.

Instead of despairing we should remember that it is the chaotic nature that makes this such a brilliant game to watch and play. The sooner we embrace that, the sooner we can abandon the dangerous path the game is on. 

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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