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Offside, 19 January

Sending Arjen Robben off for celebrating a goal shows how petty football's laws have become.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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The Law is an Ass: Episode 73. This week’s instalment of the never-ending football soap opera saw Chelsea’s Arjen Robben dismissed for jumping over an advertising hoarding to celebrate a goal.

Rather predictably, referee Chris Foy has been pilloried as a joyless jobsworth for sticking to the letter of the law. Anyone who tuned in after the goal to hear Sky summariser Andy Gray’s mournful reaction would have been forgiven for thinking that Foy had not only dismissed Robben but ejected all the disabled supporters from the stadium for cheering, outlawed all smiling within a one-mile radius of the ground, and cancelled Christmas for good measure.

So, did Foy get it wrong? Journalists and pundits have spent all week poring over the rules and regulations and the general consensus is that Robben was robbed, as it were. The vexed debate shows just what a muddle the law has become as a result of endless FIFA tinkering.

According to Law 12, which governs fouls and misconduct, unsporting conduct is a cautionable offence. The penalisation of goal celebrations is the consequence of various FIFA directives about what constitutes unsporting conduct. FIFA instructions to referees state that ‘While it is permissible for a player to demonstrate his joy when a goal has been scored, the celebration must not be excessive’. So joy is permitted but only in moderation? How absurd!

Referees are also advised to ‘exercise common-sense in dealing with the celebration of a goal’. Some commentators have lambasted Hoy for failing to apply common sense. But here’s the philosophical conundrum: how can one exercise common sense when the rules themselves are nonsensical?

Hoy would have been entitled to book Robben if he had deemed the goal celebration to be provocative or inflammatory. However, as Robben was celebrating with the Chelsea fans rather than cupping his cojones in front of the Mackems, we can rule out provocation.

In any case, Hoy’s gesture to Robben indicated that he issued a second yellow for jumping over the advertising hoardings. FIFA Circular 579 instructs referees to caution a player if ‘he climbs on to a perimeter fence to celebrate a goal being scored’. But, while Robben vaulted over the advertising hoardings, he didn’t actually climb onto the perimeter fence. The no-man’s land between the advertising hoardings and the metal crowd barriers would appear to be a grey area in the laws of the game.

Chelsea skipper John Terry was in no doubt that his team-mate should not have been carded. ‘As long as you’re not going in causing murders with the fans, there is no harm at all’, opined Terry. I think we would all concur with those sentiments. Causing murders, although not technically prohibited by any FIFA edict, would almost certainly constitute ungentlemanly conduct.

Terry’s legal opinion was somewhat undermined when he subsequently admitted ‘I wasn’t aware of the rules to be fair. But someone has got to come out and put it right.’ The nonplussed reaction of the other Chelsea players also told the same story. I know that the rules have gotten mighty complicated but surely the Chelsea players should have twigged that players are frequently booked for goal celebrations? Robbie Fowler gets booked for a goal celebration practically every time he finds the net (which, admittedly, isn’t very often these days).

I’m no referee-lover myself, but I have to say that I found Foy’s admittedly officious interpretation of the law quite entertaining. Yes, we can debate whether or not Robben’s goal celebration technically infringed the rules, but the subtext of Foy’s action was pretty clear: ‘You might have scored a goal Mr Robben, but I’m the guv’nor round here and I am going to wipe that smug grin off your face’. And so say all of us.

The possibility that Chris Foy just booked Robben on a whim does raise an interesting question. Wouldn’t football be more fun if referees were given despotic arbitrary powers, unfettered by FIFA directives, to caution players for whatever reason they see fit? Off the top of my head I can think of three good reasons for showing Robben the red card:

  1. He was celebrating a goal that he didn’t actually score. His shot was clearly deflected past the keeper by a Sunderland player. Celebrating an own goal shows a distinct lack of class;
  2. He claims to be 20 but has a weirdly middle-aged looking head;
  3. Chelsea players wax their chests (an admittedly flimsy reason but, hey, that’s the beauty of arbitrary power).

I’d love to see referees use their discretion to clamp down on goal celebrations that are intended to be funny but are clearly not. My particular bugbear is the choreographed, arms-flapping duck waddle celebration (and wildfowl variations thereof), which are typically performed by non-league teams whenever they score a goal in an FA Cup tie. Interestingly enough, our old friend Circular 579 advises referees that choreographed celebrations are ‘not to be encouraged when they result in excessive time wasting’. I don’t agree with the time wasting bit – a referee can always allow more injury time to compensate.

However, if a referee suspects that a choreographed goal celebration was designed to get onto They Think It’s All Over, he should be entitled to book the miscreants. They think it’s still funny? Well they won’t be laughing when the referee reaches for his pocket.

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Topics Politics

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