The clue is in the name. Football is about manoeuvring a ball with one’s feet. Some are good at it and others are not. The range of skill is great, from very good to mediocre and even bad and very bad.
The footworking skill of good footballers is being spoiled by the armwrestling tactics of their less skilful opponents.
The whole range has been displayed in this year’s Football World Cup in Russia. In the early group stage we saw the very bad from teams representing countries who evidently permit such standards on public display. Having now reached the knock-out stage among teams with higher standards, we witnessed more sophisticated fouls.
Tonight, in the first semi-final, between France and Belgium, we saw an important example of what is miscalled ‘a professional foul’, but this one was so subtle that no-one noticed it nor commented on it.
Early in the second half, Lukaku of Belgium had a good opportunity to head the ball into the net, but he headed it over the bar. The commentator said: ‘He couldn’t get his head to it.’ The reason was simple, unnoticed by commentators. The challenging French defender jumping behind him pressed down on Lukaku’s left shoulder so, of course, he could not get his head to the ball. Skill with feet and head is countered by the ‘professionally skilful’ misuse of arms. However, do people really want to watch flailing arms or football?
Shortly afterwards, the French forward Umtiti scored in an almost mirror-image header with the Belgian defender jumping higher behind him. Although the defender appeared to consider interfering with the jumping Umtiti, he kept his hands to himself and did not interfere with Umtiti who scored the only goal of the match, taking them into the final and bringing Belgium’s long winning streak to an end.
Holding down one’s opponent like this is more subtle and sophisticated than putting one’s arms around Harry Kane’s waist and wresting him to the ground as was witnessed in several of England’s matches in the group stage, but it made the difference in the outcome of the match. Surely holding down a person jumping to head the ball in the penalty area, and especially in the 6-yard box as this example was, amounts to the same as holding back the leg that intends to strike the ball? and it merits a penalty and even a sending off. At the end of the match the BBC commentator said about France’s defence: ‘That is as good defensive play as I have seen in a long, long time.’
Sport in general has been spoiled by drug cheats and it is commonly pointed out that football celebrities are role models to their spectators. The message to this spectator is that the skills of real footballers is being spoiled by the armwrestlers on the field. It is time to address this armwrestling. There is no need for it in the game of football, and it should be relatively easy to address. Then the real footballers will be allowed to emerge.
It looks as if sport needs Christians to clean up its act – more act than skill.
13 Jul 2018: a serendipitous discovery – FIFA’s own website complains about the quality of play: “As the FIFA General Secretary has frequently said, spectators do not go to football matches simply to see the goalkeeper standing still with the ball in his hands and waiting for nothing in particular before playing it; they want to see real skills, passes, dribbles, tactical moves, shots and of course brilliant saves by the goalkeepers.”