It’s a question that begs asking, isn’t it?

Every time a referee reaches into his pocket to extract a card, he is swamped by players wearing looks of thunderous incredulity on their faces and waving their arms in dramatic disbelief. Never mind the fact that more often than not everybody on the field saw the guilty player commit the foul that prompted the referee to book him.

A first-time observer would be forgiven for thinking that the referee might change his mind if the players protested loudly enough. That maybe if the players gave the referee the right look, he’ll feel like a proper chump and put that red card away.

Yet it never ever happens. So why do the players do it?

Two reasons. A: Incidents like the Hand of God and the Roberto Rojas Scandal. B: Referees are hog-tied by draconian rules that prevent them from making intelligent decisions, thus opening up all sorts of loopholes for the players to exploit.

I’ve complained long and hard about the rules that referees operate under. They’re (the rules) stupid and make for stupid refereeing. Consider the fact that referees can’t consult replays in order to make goal decisions. Remember Frank Lampard’s goal that was disallowed? Remember Carlos Tevez, who was clearly in an offside position, but was awarded the goal? It was quite amusing to watch the referee award the goal, and then jog over to his assistant on the side to ask what exactly had happened. While they were holding a mini-conference on the side, someone broke Fifa’s rule about showing replays of controversial decisions, and the entire stadium were treated to a slow-motion replay of the goal. Everybody, including the referee, saw that Tevez had been offside. Oops. Now what? Fifa says you can’t consult replays to make your decision. Oh, well. A goal it is. What sort of impression does this leave on the mind of the footballer? If I cheat, I might get away with it. The rules are malleable. The system is fallible.

Dirty, sneaky, under-handed play is in. Honour, good sportsmanship and fair play are out.

It wasn’t always like this.

In 1996 Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler was awarded the Uefa Fair Play award after he unsuccessfully tried to reverse a referee’s bad decision. The difference here is that the referee thought that Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman had fouled Fowler, and gave a penalty. Fowler then attempted to change the referee’s mind about giving the penalty his way, because the referee had made an error and there were no grounds for the decision. After failing to change the referee’s mind, he took the penalty tamely and Seaman saved the initial shot, only to see Jason McAteer score from the rebound.

Paolo di Canio won the Fifa Fair Play award in 2001 for refusing to take a clear goal-scoring opportunity in a game against Everton in December 2000. In a not-often-repeated display of sportsmanship, he caught a ball that had been crossed instead of shooting into an empty net after Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard twisted his knee in an attempted clearance at the edge of the box.

There are other examples of sportsmanlike behaviour in football, but they’ve been drowned out in a cacophony of diving, shamming, grimacing and cheating.

Long ago, when football was a sport and not a money-making machine, diving in the penalty area was unheard of. Players rolling about on the grass and clutching at their faces like someone had poured boiling oil into their eyes never happened. If someone got fouled, and the referee didn’t award a free kick, you simply got up and got on with the game. You didn’t shout and scream at the referee.

Then someone introduced the idea of winning at all costs. A certain Diego Maradona, who has provided much side-line entertainment as the coach of the Argentinian team. In the 1986 World Cup, he scored a goal with his hand in a quarter-final match against England, and later credited it to “the hand of God”. Argentina went on to win that World Cup. Maradona’s brazen admission that he had scored with his hand, made it OK for footballers to cheat in pursuit of glory. Maradona made it OK for Luis Suarez to stop a clear goal with his hands, and then boast about being the new Hand of God. Maradona made it OK for players to brazenly seek to exploit weaknesses in the rules of football (like poor referees) in order to win at all costs.

Roberto Rojas deserves an honourable mention in the annals of football’s most inglorious moments. He was the Chilean goalkeeper in the 1990 Fifa World Cup qualifying match. Chile were 1 – 0 down to Brazil and needed to win the match in order to qualify. Rojas fell to the ground in the course of the second half, clutching his head. A firework had apparently been thrown at him, and he was stretchered off. The Chilean players then refused to continue the match, claiming that the pitch was no longer safe. The match was abandoned, but when officials looked at the incident at a later stage, they discovered that Rojas had been shamming. Brazil were awarded the match 2 – 0 and Chile were banned from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup.

So, instead of asking whether a player has ever reversed a referee’s decision, how about asking where good sportsmanship disappeared to in football? Do we no longer have players who are honourable to get on with the game, instead of yelling at the referee?


  • Sipho Hlongwane is a journalist and columnist for the Daily Maverick. He is an avid fan of jelly beans, Top Gear, Arsenal and thinks that South Africans tend to take themselves a little too seriously. [email protected]


Sipho Hlongwane

Sipho Hlongwane is a journalist and columnist for the Daily Maverick. He is an avid fan of jelly beans, Top Gear, Arsenal and thinks that South Africans tend to take themselves a little too seriously....

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