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The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game


“If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be.”-Bill Shankley

It seems like footballers have taken these words to heart. What we watch these days expecting volumes of excitement and sentiment from the Beautiful Game is accompanied by plenty of acts which are deemed unsportsmanlike, shallow, tarnishing and disgraceful by many. To be fair, it’s what humans have done for thousands of years: proceed in the path that is most profitable to us. Interpreting this in football terms, what we have are plenty of performances that are concentrated purely on gaining an unfair advantage, all of which, mind you, have been worked around and worked through the laws of the game.


A disgraceful habit now gradually being perfected as if an art form, simulation is prevalent in pretty much every game we watch these days. A host on Sky MNF used the words “it’s creeping into the game, isn’t it?” It’s safe to say that diving to win the foul has effectively crept in, deep-rooted itself and has now spread into much greater circles and can better be described by Gary Neville as ‘epidemic’.What the Ashley Youngs and Luis Suarez’ (has cleaned up his act, off late) of our age have done with these consistent theatrics is amass pressure on referees to the extent that we have been witness to occasions where cards have been pulled out for acts of simulation when it was well and truly a foul.

In a period when players feel the pressure each and every minute of every game, seizing the opportunity to gain an advantage, whether from a malicious tackle or not, is welcomed. With managers’ jobs being so reliant on short term results, players fighting for a place in the starting line-up and the scrutiny from the fans and media to perform well, it’s comprehensible why players would want to go to ground this easily and make the most of an advantageous prospect. This contemptuous side of the game will exist and continue to exist, as much as we disapprove of it.

Eyes on the ball?

One of the most primary things one is taught when picking up the sport is to concentrate on the ball. If evolution has taught us anything, it’s about the need to adapt to survive. Translating this to football, what we can often see is neutralizing an opposing player’s threat is more of a priority and focal point, than winning the ball itself.

A more recent example of this can be extracted from Newcastle’s 2-0 victory over Mourinho’s Chelsea last month where a Newcastle player was seen facing away from the ball and towards the man he was assigned to mark, even before the corner was taken. Once the corner was taken, the objective was to disrupt the movement of the attacking Chelsea forward rather than commit to an aerial duel. Such practices have been noticed in all areas of the park. From a tactical standpoint, while the chances of winning an aerial duel might be 50-50, this does prove to be a more efficient method of getting back the ball by depriving the opposing player the chance to contest for the ball.

The Smart Foul/the Professional Foul

Every game of football sees this shrewd foul. This is probably the item in this article that is the least criticized. When your team is deep inside the opposing half, committing plenty of men forward, you take a big risk leaving a deficit of bodies and plenty of grass behind. In the case that the team losses possession, an immediate counter is set up leaving the now defending team with shortcomings. Here is where the smart foul arises, where an attacking player is deliberately fouled to break up the dangerous counter that is being constructed. Play is stalled for a brief period; the momentary pause being enough for players to gain some ground and get back into more suitable positions to defend the next wave of attack.

This foul more often than not helps eliminate the huge chance of a goal. Questions about the intent are swept aside as everyone watching knows what the intentions were. Managers have the right to plea for a possible card but know that if they were in a similar situation, would have barked orders to do the same.

There have been circumstances in the other end of the spectrum where footballers intentionally draw in fouls, seeking an advantage from that. In some instances, this drawn foul had been intentionally done to send off an opposing player already on a yellow, or earn a set piece from a lucrative goal scoring position.

Obstructing the Keeper

Neutralizing the additional aerial reach of a goalkeeper can improve the threat of a team from set pieces. Restricting the keeper’s movement by placing a player in front of him with the sole purpose of blocking his path, thus incapacitating his reach, is a tactic that has stuck around for ages now. Although this tactic has been worked around by placing one of the keeper’s teammates in between the keeper and the barricading opposition player. The keeper is now protected by one of his own and can choose to run around the two.

There are a lot of cases in which aforementioned occurrence is taken a level further, with the defending team being excessively aggressive in order to protect their goalkeeper. Such cases result in the referee being forced to sort the issue before the corner kick is taken, in which case, the attacking team loses its claim to a penalty when the ball is put into play if the aggression had persisted. A notable illustration was in the 2012-13 Champions League round of 16, when Celtic faced Juventus. Gary Hooper was instructed to impede Buffon’s movement and Lichsteiner was the intervening party. The hostility was kept up until the referee, Alberto Undiano Mallenco, disciplined both Lichsteiner and Hooper before the corner kick was taken, which if, had it been taken without the referee’s intervention, would have been a strong penalty shout for Celtic.

The Shirt Pull

The ever seen tug on an opposition’s shirt as he paces away is a bad habit that is cheap enough to be effective and yet, at times costly enough to earn a penalty. The extensive practice of preventing an opponent from running away by pulling his shirt is something that is seen more on the professional stage than at lower amateur levels. This method of acquiring an unfair advantage is not something you’d expect or rather want the referee interrupting play and pulling out cards for, every time it occurs.

Such an offense is duly noted by referees but the severity and the location of where the foul is occurring are vital factors that determine if it’s a foul-worthy offense. The case of the shirt pulling is one that is small enough that imposing a set punishment might impair the game and yet big enough that letting it go scot-free could have a further impact on the game.

The Intentional Yellow Card

Uncommon in League Football where it requires 5 yellows to be banned, a trend was set in competitions such as the Europa League and the Champions League where a yellow card received in one game would superficially carry forth to the next games in which, if another yellow is received, would result in ban. Managers and players have used this disciplinary law to gain a peculiar advantage, intentionally getting the second yellow to welcome the one match ban with open arms. This would help managers protect themselves from media who often accuse them of fielding weaker teams in games that are beyond the oppositions reach. The ban also results in the players having a clean slate once they return, thus preventing them from receiving a ban at more crucial stages of the competition under the same ruling.

Although it is hard to say how intentional a bad tackle that results in a card was, there have been cases where it was blatantly intentional. Mourinho, while at Madrid, was fined for intentionally requesting his players, Ramos and Alonso, to receive cards to wipe their slate clean once they were back from their bans, rather than hold on to the threat of suspensions due to standing yellows. The players too, were fined and banned in this instance.

Time Wasting

Running down the clock such that the opponent is unable to employ his tactics occurs undoubtedly in every single game of football played. There really isn’t much the opposing team can do with a significant restraint on the time left in the game. Tactics are hurried in an alarmed manner with its effectiveness greatly reduced. There is an abundance of methods teams take to carry out this chore.

Falsifying an injury is a common happening and sooner or later, the player is spotted by the referee and is forced to stop play. A dip into the substitutions at hand is an alternative way to watch the clock tick, as the player being substituted slowly makes his way across the pitch taking his own time, while play is stalled. Inviting a foul and waiting for a player from the far end of the pitch to run over and take the free kick or any other set piece, taking a short set piece after spending time arranging players to receive the ball, running to the corner flag with the ball, the insanely slow goal kick, goalkeepers falling to the ground after grasping the ball, passing the ball to the keeper and expecting an opposing player to close him down, etc. are all recognised methods to successfully spend the dying seconds of the game without doing something stupid.

Over to you! What are the other components of the “Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game” ?

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