Wednesday, 10 August 2016

How to play "in the spirit of the game"

Game 4, 2016-17

New revisions, open to more interpretation
The new Fifa directives for this season advise referees to control play not just according to the Laws of the Game, but in "the spirit of the game" too. They could hardly have phrased it more vaguely if they'd written, "Yeah, just go out and there and blow your whistle whenever you feel the urge. Actually, we don't care any more what you do. Most of our Laws are open to interpretation anyway. Do whatever the hell you want."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. We can interpret "the spirit of the game" any way we like, mainly to suit ourselves. Can I kick the niggly midfielder who bleats about every decision hard in the bollocks? That would seem, under the circumstances, to be in the spirit of the game. Can I accept a bundle of hard currency in a brown envelope to favour the team that discreetly placed the cash inside my sports bag as I walked into the changing room? Sure. What could currently be more in the spirit of the game than the richest team buying victory?

So anyway, to last night's cup game. First round. The away team has as its honorary president a
prominent ex-parliamentarian and anarcho-communist revolutionary of the 68 generation. His son founded the club with friends a few years back to create a playing field without allegiance to any specific city area, ethnicity or religion. In other words, all are welcome. They have a good reputation for sporting behaviour and progressive campaigning, though when I checked their disciplinary record before the game it wasn't anything special.

Yet it was clear from the kick-off that this team was different. They didn't foul. They didn't complain. It seemed to have an effect on the home team, who followed suit. For the first 15 minutes I blew my whistle only once, for an offside. I felt like stopping the match, hugging them all, and then walking off to leave them to their own devices. Clearly, they didn't need me.

During that first half, I ruled out two goals for the away team for offside. The calm was almost uncanny. Usually any offside decision, even when it doesn't involve a goal, provokes collective uproar. It's more effort than I'm prepared to make to point out yet again that I don't have linesmen, and the reason that these leagues and cup competitions don't have linesmen is because the clubs themselves voted against having them. Too expensive, apparently.

Lest I start to idealise this group of players, things warmed up a bit in the second half. There was an aggressive one-on-one confrontation following a foul, and a yellow card for dissent - an away forward slammed the ball into the ground after an offside call, and his team-mate pointed out he too thought that I'd made the wrong call (the player had come back to get the ball from an offside position, so that no one could comprehend how he could be offside when he received the ball with a defender now between him and the goal - always fun to blow for those). Then a few minutes later he apologised for speaking out of turn, and again at the final whistle.

The team with the former anarcho-communist 68 revolutionary as its honorary president won 4-1. Mainly they proved that it's easily possible to play hard without fouling an opponent, and that you can win a game without remonstrating constantly with the referee. They played "in the spirit of the game", and for the most part their opponents (two yellows for foul play) did too. Thank you. It was an absolute pleasure.

You can support this blog by buying Ian Plenderleith's latest book, The Quiet Fanhere.

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