Nailing real cheats

Nailing real cheats

Cheating in sports has been around a very long time, but is there more of it in the world today? And if there is, surely with modern science we can deal with it?

The sports pages last Tuesday were indicative of the trend: The jockey banned for providing inside information to bettors, the motor racer allegedly instructed to deliberately crash to alter the outcome, the rugby player who feigned a blood injury, the dopers in athletics, and, of course, the furor in soccer over top players simulating fouls to obtain penalties by deceit.

Also on Tuesday, UEFA, which oversees soccer in 53 European nations, used video to decide whether or not to ban Eduardo da Silva, the Arsenal forward, for deceiving the referee into believing that he was tripped by Celtic's goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, in a Champions League match last week. They subsequently found him guilty and banned him for two matches.

UEFA's move is an alarming precedent. Boruc did appear to take his hands away at the vital moment that Eduardo sped past him. Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez, the Spanish referee, made a split-second judgment, and even watching the replay, whether he was fooled does not appear to be scientifically provable one way or the other.

The referee, chosen by UEFA, deserved to be trusted by the authority.

The day after that match, Michel Platini, the UEFA president and one of the finest players of his generation, told me his view of the incident was inconclusive. It looked like a dive, but only one man, Eduardo, knows if he went to ground because of contact.
If Platini, with his personal experience of playing, could not be certain, why should the members of a committee sitting in Switzerland and reviewing the video overrule the appointed decision maker on the field, the referee?

We know there are players who cheat. We know simulation exists. We know it gets worse the greater the financial prize at stake.

Television power

Television loves its power to appear more important than the referee. Newspapers trumpet photographic "evidence" in still frame pictures of half a dozen incidents during last weekend: The tackle by Aston Villa's Zat Knight on Liverpool's Fernando Torres, the penalty when Arsenal goalie Manuel Almunia dived hands first in front of the onrushing Wayne Rooney of Manchester United.

And so on and on. Soccer is a fast-moving sport, collisions are inevitable, controversy is part and parcel of the game. And while soccer is speeding up, there is still only one referee. His decision is, according to the laws of the sport, final.

By holding a review by committee of the Eduardo incident, UEFA is responding to emotion rather than to reason. The Scottish Football Association, whose constituency includes Celtic, is on a crusade to outlaw this element of perceived cheating and has pressured UEFA into a long, dark corridor.

By overruling the referee and undermining his authority on the basis of inconclusive video evidence you open up the whole game to constant post-match video review. It has already begun.
Television stations and newspapers have hired ex-referees to give their views, to support or contradict their own kind. There was a time when the referees retired gracefully and did not take the cash to sit in television studios or their armchairs in critical judgment.
Graham Poll, referee turned pundit and newspaper critic, forgets that, during a World Cup game in 2006, he showed a yellow card three times to the same player before sending him off.
And that was for something worse than simulation.
It was for persistent foul play. If there is a reason to use video to clean up soccer, it surely is to remove from the fray the so-called hard men who systematically attempt to harm an opponent.

Real villains

Those are the real villains who destroy sport, the cheats who, sometimes ordered by their coach, hack and foul and even deliberately injure superior players. The divers are a menace, the leg breakers are heinous. The referees ought to know the difference, and where the arbiters err they should be confronted in a private room with video evidence. That is the way, until now, that UEFA has dealt with it. Meanwhile, who disciplines the disciplinarians?

Cheating starts in soccer with such systemic practices as countries fielding over age youths, even men, in age-group tournaments.

FIFA, the world soccer authority, has more and more tournaments, both male and female.
Suspicion has festered for decades that several nations, particularly in Africa, exploit the ambiguity that sometimes exists over birth certificates to win Under-17 events.
Nigeria, which hosts the next Under 17 World Cup in October, has been the object of suspicion after winning the tournament in 1985, 1993 and 2007.

This week, FIFA announced that it intends to use magnetic resonance imaging tests to "protect the integrity of the tournament" at the tournament in October. These scans will measure the players' bones and will, said FIFA, serve the spirit of fair play. Random testing is intended to determine the biological age of players among the 24 teams in the tournament.

There are academics who think that MRI scans fail to address biological and social maturity of youth in different parts of the world. It may not sort out the men from the boys, nor allow for fast or slow maturing across wide cultural and ethnic boundaries. Maybe it is more conclusive than a penalty replay.

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