The Africa Cup of Nations, FIFA and the Rules of the Game – By Raymond BellehAfrica, Articles, Columnists, NNP Columnists, Raymond Belleh, Sports Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
By Raymond Belleh, NNP, Feb. 21, 2012 – What a conclusion to the Africa Cup of Nations! What a final! Against all odds some might think, the Chipolopos of Zambia are the new football champions of Africa. A first Africa Cup of Nations trophy for them, a memorable final for the rest of us.
This is an achievement thoroughly deserved. They have really played some of the most scintillating and innovative football I have seen in a long time, and I have really enjoyed watching them these past couple of weeks.
The sentimental significance of their achievement cannot be emphasized enough. Poignantly, it was off the coast of this very Gabon in 1993 that all but one of their reputedly most outstanding team perished in a plane crash whilst attempting to achieve the same feat. Now a lesser-acclaimed line-up of Chipolopolos has returned to the same region to make up for what death deprived their compatriots. They themselves can now be considered among the elites of African football.
Que sera, sera, what will be will be. And so it turned out to be for Zambia. On paper everything seemed in Cote d’Ivoire’s favour, high-profile players from the best top leagues in the world and straightforward wins throughout the competition. On the field, perhaps a little help from a referee who blew his whistle every time Didier Drogba was tackled. They had the game in their hand, the penalty award during regular play, and the opportunity to capitalise on Zambia’s first stumble during the penalty shoot-outs. But it seemed a higher universal force had determined that the Chipolopolo’s return to Libreville wasn’t going to be in vain and history was going to be made that evening.
It is not that Cote d’Ivoire played badly at all. On the contrary, there were many moments in the match were one felt Zambia were going to be railroaded into submission, especially with the introduction of Ivorian speedy winger, Max Gradel. But Zambia held their nerves and played clever, making spirited and dangerous incursions into their opponent’s 18yard box. They held their lines well, marked intensely and prevented the likes of Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure doing what they do best. Corner kicks took on a new exciting dimension as one pondered what the Chipolopolo’s next bag of tricks would be. They truly executed exactly what their coach Herve Renard set out for them to. So thumps up to him for a job well done.
It is must be said that both teams made it a thrilling and exciting evening of football spectacle. There was excitement from the very kick-off right down to the eventual penalty shoot-outs. It is not often you see such quality penalty kicks in such a high stakes match. There must have been some frozen hearts in and out of that stadium. Some fans that paid for the pleasure of being there ended up turning away from the field as tensions reached a crescendo.
So much for reputations and rankings, Zambia came, saw and conquered. Lead by a dedicated and unrelenting captain in Chris Katongo, along with a resolute, defiant goalkeeper in Kennedy Mweene, they have proven that you do not necessarily have to be playing in the biggest leagues to excel. Dedication, team spirit and a bit of football artistry can also take you a long way. They prove that it is not just about earning thousands of pounds, but national pride counts for something too.
It is a lesson for Nigerian and other African players who sometimes strut about like lords when it is time to serve their country. Here a team of guys mostly plying their trade in within Africa and lower leagues around the world have come up trumps in a competition where the Super Eagles failed to even qualify. Zambia beat all the assumed tournament favourites – Senegal, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to lift the trophy.
Their success may seem a stunning surprise to those not so familiar with the Nations Cup. But it wouldn’t be a great surprise to those African teams who have faced them at various stages over the last few years, and that includes the Super Eagles. I recall vividly how the Chipolopolos gave them a torrid time in a recent Nations Cup match. They ran the Eagles ragged with their speed and tenacity, and were very unfortunate to have come off losers in that game. It may have even ended in a draw if my memory serves me correctly.
The reality is the Zambian team has been rising steadily through the ranks, honing their craft along the way, and have now reached the level of maturity and professionalism that has brought them to this historic juncture. They have managed to combine great team spirit with an effective work ethic.
The disappointment of the Ivorian Elephants is obvious. They too had viewed winning the trophy as a tool that could be used to heal the divisions caused by deadly violence that engulfed their nation following the most recent disputed elections between Laurent Gbagbo and Quattara.
As one of the top three FIFA ranked African teams, this competition presented the strongest opportunity to lift the trophy a second time, in the absence of regular tournament heavyweights like Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroun. They had arrived at the final not losing or drawing a single game, nor conceding a single goal. That is quite good going by any standard. I know it won’t be much of a consolation to them, but they really did have a successful tournament. Losing on penalties doesn’t represent the greatest defeat, painful as it is.
I know with the calibre of players in the Ivorian camp, most viewers outside the continent had expected them to outplay and outscore lesser-known teams. Easier said than done. They must be unaware of the development and fast changing dynamics of African football in recent times. Those so-called small nations have been on a steady upward climb as acutely demonstrated by the gallant displays of teams like Guinea, Gabon, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. Belittle any nation at your peril. The absence of countless goals marks the improvement various teams have made to their play.
My overall assessment of the tournament is that it was quite a success. No violence, no drunken brawls, no deadly stampedes. Just a nice, warm and friendly atmosphere, the way it should be. The host nations deserve high praise for delivering such a good sporting event. I thought the lesser reckoned teams, like the joint hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, acquitted themselves brilliantly, and might have even gone further in the competition but for some poor refereeing decisions. I thought some of the officiating was simply silly and brings to the fore the urgent need for changes to some of the rules governing football. Actually the need for a review of the rules is quite belated, it ought to have occurred a few years back.
Since the just concluded Cup of Nations forms the source of my latest discontent with aspects of the today’s football officiating, I’ll start with it. The competition highlights clearly the declining standard of refereeing and the negative impact it is having on the game. I strongly feel that a number of woeful decisions cost teams like Gabon and Guinea chances of progressing.
Take the last group qualifier between Guinea and Ghana, where players of the former received yellow cards for innocuous challenges that changed the order of the game. I thought Guinea really had the upper hand in that match until the referee’s grandiose interpretation of the rules got one player sent off and others missing the next match. Replays of those incidents clearly show the referee judged incorrectly.
From my observations I didn’t think any games were particularly bad tempered. The physicality of the African game meant there were always going to be strong challenges here and there. But I do not believe these were particularly malicious. Yet the overzealousness of some refs saw players booked and sent off for silly fouls. The few incidents that merited severe punishments went unnoticed. And that points to the problem of inconsistencies when it comes to refereeing decisions.
These refereeing blunders are not confined to the Nation’s Cup. The exact same occurrences are seen day in day out in various leagues across the world. The same ridiculous refereeing decisions have defined many matches in the English Premiership and FA Cup to the rage of many managers and supporters. Some referees have become perpetual game wreckers. Whenever they officiate a match you are guaranteed some type of drama. Many a manager has been left fuming at decisions that cost them the game, then points, and eventually their jobs. The refs on the other hand go home unscathed and unperturbed to look forward to their next game wrecking escapade.
Some of today’s referees seem to have developed the thinking, that unless they’ve issued a few cards, it hasn’t been a good day at the office. They have become so trigger-happy, cards are issued out with the frequency a Good Samaritan donates to a favourite charity. They flash those cards with the absolute authority like divine rulers who consider themselves beyond error or reproach, only for the playbacks to show they were wrong.
Is it not a bit unbalanced that players and managers can be held accountable for their actions and utterances both on and off the pitch, yet there is no procedure for dealing with refs who fumble and make the wrong judgments! Players and managers have been rebuked or fined following video re-examination of certain incidents, yet this doesn’t apply to refs. Why is there no mechanism for reviewing and rescinding ill-judged penalties on re-examination of video evidences! A player is sent off for a foul he didn’t commit and the three-match ban is maintained in spite of the visual evidence. This obviously can’t be right. Why all the rigidity with these rules! A wrong decision is a wrong decision.
These are areas FIFA ought to be taking a good look at. If we accept the explanation that referees are mere human beings and thereby prone to occasional mistakes, then we must also give footballers the same benefit of doubt. Football being the physically competitive and fast paced sport it is means that physical contact is a constant inevitability. However these days almost any contact is deemed a foul, as referees allow themselves to be swayed by the exaggerated gestures of players and the wails and moans of supporters.
The line between an intentionally malicious foul and a coming together of two players has been completely blurred. Some players have received yellow cards for fouls they weren’t even aware of committing. At this rate we might soon see a player booked for tripping over his own foot.
There is a general recognition that players themselves have largely bought into this whole flamboyant charade of feigning injury. The slightest gust of wind, and strong agile athletes go to ground with the grace and elegance of a ballerina or the precision dive of a Hollywood stuntman. The game has become all about getting others booked or sent off in order to gain unfair advantage. What used to be a mostly South American preserve has become a widespread formula for determining the outcome of a game.
Then there is the regular contentious penalty issue surrounding a presumed foul or handball situation in the 18yard box. Why should a ball, traveling at some considerable speed, hitting a player’s hand be considered a foul! If the ball strikes a player’s face, not much is said. But when it hits the hand, everyone goes into some frenzied cry of injustice. Perhaps players should now play with arms tied behind their backs to ensure no contact with the ball.
The real injustice is the numerous penalties that have been given for the slightest body contacts and ball-to-hand incidents. I am quite sure the statistics books will show that more penalty kicks have been awarded in the last decade than all previous years of football put together. These days, all an attacking player needs to do is simply fall onto the legs of a defender, and he is guaranteed a penalty.
All of these discrepancies are slowly eating away at the game. Matches are increasingly being decided by contentious fouls, sending offs and penalties. The beautiful game has become so clinical and technical, as big money drives the need to win by any means necessary. The true essence of what the game should be about, skill, sportsmanship and entertainment, is slowly being suffocated.
The unchallengeable authority given to referees continues to create loopholes for all sorts of covert gambling and bribery incidents. Some refereeing decisions have left me completely bewildered, I am resigned to no other conclusion than the refs must be on the take. We can all point to various match fixing and corruption exposes around the world, including FIFA’s own recent well-publicised cases. The current status quo only helps to sustain platforms and avenues by which allow match fixing and briberies thrive.
FIFA, whose image and reputation has suffered terribly in recent times, can redeem itself by introducing necessary and meaningful changes to the game. It will help reduce to a considerable extent, the many contentious and dubious aspects of the game. We saw how a simple match loss in Egypt degenerated into a riot that ultimately lead to the deaths of more than 70 people. It would not be surprising to learn that disputed officiating played some part in igniting this tragedy.
The time is more than ripe for visual technology to play a more significant role in football. Why the reluctance to move with the times when the benefits are obvious! Other sports, far less sensitive and contentious, have already embraced various forms of technology. The likelihood of a fatal crowd disturbance exist more in a game of football than almost any other sport. The passion generated by football is such that there is a constant possibility of things escalating to the point where riots break out, and stampedes and deaths occur. Technology can help to greatly curtail these by defusing disputes before they get out of hand.
FIFA, Sett Blatter specifically, has in the past stated that technology will only restrict the flow of the game. I beg to differ; I believe technology will fit in nicely with the modern game. We have seen it applied effectively in other sports. Players arguing over controversial decisions already restrict games somewhat. Visual replays will put a rest to all that unnecessary squabbling. Those who wish to see grown men square up to each other should go and watch boxing, wrestling, or one of those bare-knuckle cage fights.
The stakes in today’s game are much higher than bygone years. There is a lot of money involved, with players receiving humongous salaries and supporters paying through their teeth to see them perform. At least if a game is won or lost based on clear evidence of fair play and true competitive spirit, many supporters won’t be too inflamed when things don’t go their way. But when it is clear their team’s loss was due to some botched decision, it becomes a much bitter pill to swallow.
FIFA must begin to effect the changes the game needs. Embracing the assistance of visual technology is a good place to start. This single step alone will address the multiple issues responsible for flashpoints in football.
FIFA need not worry that this will take away from the free flow of the game, I am sure most football enthusiasts enjoy the spectacle of those slow motion replays. It will only take a matter of seconds to confirm a foul, handball, or goal line dispute. Games will now be won purely on merit. No more false dives and pretend agony with one eye open. No more ganging up on referees, fewer reasons to doubt their integrity and impartiality. We can all then sit back and watch football for what it should be, a beautiful, competitive sporting spectacle.
With such changes, African teams, which have always perceived FIFA officials as being a little unfair and heavy-handed on them in international competitions, can aspire anew. Perhaps teams like the Chipolopolos of Zambia, the new African champions, can begin to see the World Cup as a trophy well within their reach.
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