The story of the underdog is a perennial favorite amongst audiences worldwide – there’s nothing like a victory against the odds to raise the spirits, as evidenced by the joyous reaction of Pakistani civil society to their World Twenty20 win in June. In times of difficulty, this tale of triumph over adversity gains even more appeal as more people relate to the context – Seabiscuit and Jim Braddock, for example, symbolized the struggles of America during the first Great Depression.
Equally popular is the fallen hero – celebrity misdeeds occupy a great deal of press coverage as it is, and everyone has an opinion on a tainted legacy – for many, the French legend Zinedine Zidane is remembered not for his match-winning headers against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final, but with his header into the chest of Marco Materazzi in the 2006 Final.
Combine the two, and there’s a recipe for an explosion of huge proportions. When the underdogs from Ireland were going into a winner-goes-to-World-Cup against heavyweights (and previous finalists) France, no one could have predicted that living legend Thierry Henry would stain his record with a blatant handball that directly led to the winning goal. With spice added on by the fact that Michel Platini, the president of the European football association, is a Frenchman, conspiracy theorists around the world had a field day.
In 1986 it was the Hand of God when Maradona exacted revenge against the English; in 2009 it has been the Hand of Gaul that knocked out the Irish. 23 years have passed and we are no farther on. There was not only evidence but also admission of guilt both then and now – and the fact that the outcome has been the same both times is a disgrace.
The world has changed dramatically and football must adapt with it. The calls for modification that purists scoff upon must be translated into action after this latest travesty, for the game has already undergone change over the past few decades. The days of ferocious, take-no-prisoner defenders such as the Italian Claudio Gentile (famous for being anything but gentle) are more or less over. The last great Frenchman with a tainted legacy, Zidane, was red-carded after his infamous outburst was missed by referee Horacio Elizondo and reported by assistant referee Luis Medina Cantalejo through headset. And this year, UEFA is testing the concept of goal-line referees in the Europa League (previously the UEFA Cup).
In that context, a system to reduce the unfair results such as the one last week should be introduced. It is in the interest of the beautiful game to maintain a tradition of meritocracy and, yes, provide a level playing field. Giovanni Trappatoni’s men were denied the chance to take part in the biggest sporting spectacle in the world, and a whole nation has been temporarily alienated from the sport, turning away in disgust at the injustice conferred upon their heroes by a combination of cheating, human error, damningly, archaic rules.
For cheating and human error will forever remain part of sport as an institution, and there is little short of obsessive monitoring that any authority can do to prevent it. The rules, though, can and should change.
Arguments against the use of technology in football are centered around the assumption that replays would bring disruptions to the flow of the game, as well as take away the unpredictability of the human element. However, cricket and tennis have shown that video replays are often inconclusive (another criticism of them) and that DOES assure human and not robotic decision making. In addition, the usage of replays can be carefully restricted to ensure that games are played in full flow.
One suggestion for FIFA is to introduce instantaneous video replays for assistant referees and limit their usage to reviews at half-time and full-time to decide whether any retroactive decisions should be made. Furthermore, these reviews should be exclusively for match-changing decisions such as red cards, penalties, and yes, handballs leading to goals. Goal-line referees are another good idea for they maintain human decision making and do use technology as well (albeit minimally).
For this specific situation, Henry could be fined or banned for a few fixtures (both international and domestic, which possibly takes him out of El Clasico – heavy punishment indeed!) based on video evidence as well as his own statement. Interestingly, the striker has stated that a replay would be fair to Ireland and has been supported by many big names, such as Roy Keane, David Beckham, and Patrick Vieira. In any case, actions taken by the governing body now would help prove that FIFA is serious about promoting fair results and taking positive steps to improve decision making.