Of foul play and France’s progress

Though 18 of the top 20 teams in the world have made it to the finals this time, South Africa will still miss a number of exciting players and teams. By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

“Most modern professionals (and amateurs, too) think that the convention is not to walk but to accept the umpire’s decision. The theory is that decisions ‘even out’ over the course of a game and the authority of the umpires is upheld. But, under the same set of conventions, it is not considered acceptable to scoop up a half-volley at slip and claim it as a catch. So it is not cheating if you are 100 per cent sure you edged the ball but do not walk, but it is cheating if you are 100 per cent sure the ball bounced but you claim the catch.”

So says former England cricketer Ed Smith in his book ‘What Sport Tells Us About Life’. “Arguments about cheating in sport revolve around conventions more than laws,” he states.

In football, a theatrical tumble in the penalty box usually raises far greater outcry than a cynical trip to bring down a striker on its edge.

So where does Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in the World Cup qualifying play-off sit in the Richter scale of moral outrage caused by cheating? Very high, if you ask Time Magazine, which put the French striker’s offence on top of its list of ‘10 Sporting Cheats’. Other dastardly deeds of sporting history that Henry supposedly outdid featured state-sponsored doping of athletes, match-fixing scandals in two different sports, a Formula One team forcing one of its own drivers to crash, and a Paralympic gold-winning basketball team of 12 members of whom 10 weren’t disabled.

This was either dreadful over-reaction from Time, or more likely an ironic attempt to put the incident in perspective. Henry’s handball wasn’t a premeditated act of skulduggery, but one committed instinctively, an act he followed up by faltering in the face of the stakes involved.

Regardless, France’s progress to South Africa will always carry the taint of foul play. There isn’t any reparation in sight, since FIFA has refused to countenance the Irish FA’s call for a replay.

And rightly so, for that would mean replaying other contentious matches in the same competition for the sake of fairness (purportedly the point of a replay). These would include, ironically, Ireland’s 2-1 comeback win over Georgia in September. Ireland’s 73rd minute equaliser came from a distinctly lucky penalty, won thanks to a dubious handball call on Georgian defender Ucha Lobjanidze. The ball had struck on the top of Lobjanidze’s shoulder rather than any part of his arm, after Robbie Keane had himself handled the ball, unnoticed by the referee, in the build-up.

So what can football learn from this fracas? Many say that referees need help from technology. A graphic in The Times showed that neither the referee nor the linesman had a clear view of Henry during the handball incident, since their lines of sight were blocked by other players in the box. A video referee could easily have settled the issue.

Yet, the same match threw up fodder for technology sceptics — the penalty-area tumble involving Nicolas Anelka and Ireland keeper Shay Given that occurred just two minutes before the Henry handball. Even after viewing replays from every conceivable angle, it’s hard to say with any certainty whether Given fouled Anelka or the French striker dived. Two referees could interpret the same evidence in two different ways. If an official had watched replays of the melee in a room with a television, the eventual decision, whichever way it went, would have left one set of fans indignant, just as the decision of the on-field referee did. Had France not equalised, we would have been discussing this incident instead of the handball.

Controversy in the play-offs wasn’t restricted only to the France-Ireland game. Russia could look back at its 1-0 defeat to Slovenia with a tinge of somewhat-justified annoyance at referee Terje Hauge, whose sending off of striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov in the 66th minute ended any hopes of a Russian comeback.

Kerzhakov, a second-half substitute, slid towards Slovenia keeper Samir Handanovic to connect with a cross. Handanovic was first to the ball, but let it slip out of his grasp. This prompted Kerzhakov to kick out at the ball, as most strikers would do in such circumstances. The referee, however, saw this as dangerous play, considering how close he was to the keeper — another case of multiple interpretations.

Over in Khartoum, the Algeria-Egypt game to decide Africa’s final entrant was marred by brawls that broke out on the pitch at regular intervals. Following the 1-0 loss that knocked the Egyptians out, riots broke out in Cairo, with mobs reportedly hurling firebombs at the Algerian embassy, mirroring the clashes that broke out after Egypt qualified for Italia ’90 with a 1-0 win over Algeria. The goals that decided both these games were incidentally of the highest class. VfL Bochum defender Antar Yahia took Algeria to its first World Cup since 1986 with a quite astonishing volley off the crossbar, swinging his right foot at Karim Ziani’s lofted pass from an acute angle.

At Maribor, the Slovenians passed the ball with quiet purpose, constantly seeking space, before Valter Birsa finally found some on the right flank to cross from. Zlatko Dedic then made a difficult finish look simple, squeezing past his marker with an extended leg to connect with the outside of his boot.

Greece, meanwhile, went past Ukraine thanks to a goal that belied the Euro 2004 champion’s dour reputation, the product of a truly visionary pass from Celtic striker Georgios Samaras, who had dropped deep into midfield to set strike partner Dimitris Salpigidis free of the Ukraine back-line and one-on-one with keeper Andrei Piatov.

Portugal rounded off Europe’s play-off, beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0 on a slow, uneven pitch in Zenica to go through 2-0 on aggregate. Porto midfielder Raul Meireles scored the game’s only goal, slotting home after Nani and Simao Sabrosa combined to set him up.

Only a few weeks ago, Argentina, France and Portugal were in real danger of not making it to the World Cup. Having squeezed every possible drop of drama from their remaining qualifying games, all three are now through. FIFA has been accused of making their routes easier, with some justification, considering the timing of its decision to seed the European play-offs. Yet, Ireland proved more than a doughty opponent to France, and Bosnia, despite the relative ease of Portugal’s play-off win, was a genuine contender to qualify, a team brimming with attacking flair.

Consider its first-choice strikers Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, both of whom were among the top scorers in the Bundesliga last season. Playmaker Zvjezdan Misimoviae, Dzeko’s team-mate at Wolfsburg, led the assist charts last season, setting up 18 league goals and 23 in all competitions.

And so, while 18 of the top 20 teams in the world (FIFA rankings, as of November 20) have made it to the finals this time, up from 14 (as per the list released a month before the 2006 World Cup) in the last edition, South Africa will still miss a number of exciting players and teams.

After performing so well in Euro 2008, Russia and Croatia are now the 2010 World Cup’s conspicuous absentees. Croatia finished third in Group Six — possibly the toughest of Europe’s groups — a point behind Ukraine after a campaign ravaged by injuries to key players at various stages, including the influential Tottenham playmaker Luka Modric, who broke his leg in a Premier League match against Birmingham just ahead of Croatia’s crucial qualifier against England. South Africa will miss Modric’s nimble feet as well as those of Andrei Arshavin of Russia.

The exit of Russia also denies manager Guus Hiddink a chance to perform his magic on World Cup sides for a fourth time, after leading Holland to the semifinals in 1998, South Korea to the same stage four years later and Australia to the second round in the last edition.

That Egypt hasn’t made a World Cup since 1990 is partially due to Africa’s limited representation in the event. In recent years, Egypt has been one of the most watchable international sides in the world, a team capable of carving open the best of defences with slick passing, like it did in the Confederations Cup in June, putting three past Brazil in a 4-3 defeat before beating Italy 1-0. The cultured Mohammed Aboutrika, now 31 and widely considered the best player in the world not playing for a European or South American club, might go down alongside the likes of George Weah and Ryan Giggs in never getting a chance to set a World Cup alight.

Sweden, which had qualified for the last five major international tournaments (three European Championships and two World Cups), missed out this time, finishing a point behind Portugal in its European group. Considering its lukewarm performance in Euro 2008, and its struggle to find replacements for its retired stars like Freddie Ljungberg, Marcus Allback and Henrik Larsson, lynchpins of the successful Lars Lagerback era, this was to be expected. Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will have to wait a while longer to prove to his critics that he can perform in major international tournaments.

THE FINAL 32 EUROPE (13)

Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, France.

AFRICA (6)

South Africa (host), Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire.

SOUTH AMERICA (5) Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay. ASIA (4) Australia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea. NORTH, CENTRAL AMERICA & CARIBBEAN (3) USA, Mexico, Honduras. OCEANIA (1) New Zealand.