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‘Well, there was contact’  has become my most hated phrase in football, more loathed even than ‘and your commentator tonight is Clive Tyldesley’. It has become the stock utterance of everyone from the highest pundit to the lowest fan when they pretend to give grave consideration to the merits or otherwise of a penalty decision. It is offensively inane and explains nothing because here is the thing, football is a contact sport, there will always be contact, lots of it, all of the time.

It is hard not to like Dwight Yorke but he was the straw that broke my back (forcing me to write this) when he came out with ‘well, there was contact’ when analyzing Ashley Young’s latest attempt to make a crater in the pitch at Old Trafford.

Incidentally I once saw Dwight Yorke at Newcastle Airport and the only piece of baggage he had with him was a single golf club, perhaps he knows more about Newcastle Airport than I do? I feel that the ‘well, there was contact’ argument has emerged for very specific reasons which I will go into but truly there is only one consideration, has an offence been committed within the penalty area whilst the ball is in play?

For the record and as defined by FIFA a direct free kick occurs when a player commits any of the following in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

  • Kicking or attempting to kick an opponent
  • Tripping or attempting to trip an opponent
  • Jumping at an opponent
  • Charging an opponent
  • Striking or attempting to strike an opponent
  • Pushing an opponent
  • Tackling an opponent

Or commits (one of) the following offences:

  • Holding an opponent
  • Spitting at an opponent
  • Handling the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)

Nowhere at all do FIFA say ‘well, there was contact’ and given that even attempted kicks or trips should be punishable it would seem that there is no requirement at all for any type of contact. Hence it is curious why ‘well, there was contact’ has come to dominate all debates about penalties. For the answer to this we need to take a brief history lesson.

Up until about the last 1980’s there was no cheating at all in English football, unless of course you included the regular attempts to hospitalise your opponents, but nobody did so that was ok. Then the foreigners started arriving, things started to change and like the introduction of other foreign devilments into English society like pesto sauce and drinkable wine it has been a mixed blessing. The technical and tactical qualities of the English league may have risen to unprecedented levels but along with that came cheating and the worse kind of cheating at that, foreign cheating. Even the notoriously French Arsene Wenger agrees that the foreigners bought cheating and specifically diving for penalties to these shores, foreign bastards.

Let us just accept the stereotypes. However in the debate over penalty decisions the moral lines were still clear cut, they dived, we didn’t, they were ‘clever’, we weren’t. Sadly that state of affairs could never last as the creeping foreign influence grew ever stronger, and just as in English society where many people started to ‘caramelise’ onions instead of just frying them, our brave English footballers started diving and this is where the problems began and clarity about what constitutes a penalty got lost.

To my mind the watershed moment came with a penalty in an infamous game at Old Trafford in October 2004 when Manchester United broke Arsenal’s record breaking unbeaten run after 49 matches. Wayne Rooney saw Sol Campbell’s outstretched leg and promptly fell over it, the always weak-willed Mike Riley who was refereeing the game dutifully pointed to the penalty spot. It was diving in its purest form, but Rooney is English, he had just been the hero of the nation at Euro 2004, he didn’t just dive for penalties like some kind of foreigner. If you don’t believe me then watch this compilation, Wayne Rooney Never Dives

And so the obfuscation began, Rooney was accommodated in a way that no foreign player would ever get the luxury of and the spurious arguments poured forth. Campbell was ‘taking a risk’  by having his leg outstretched, this is the moral equivalent of saying, ‘she was wearing a short skirt you honour, she was begging for it’.  Other phoney arguments became popular as well, the game is so fast now that the slightest touch can knock someone over, he had to get out of the way of the tackle to avoid injury, etc. Over time all of these excuses become crystallised in the endlessly repeated ‘well, there was contact.’

As a moral argument the debate about diving should be dead by now. We should all be able to accept that players of all nationalities dive but the English media still does not want to acknowledge this properly. Fans of all clubs should be able to accept that they have players in their team that will cheat in this way. But whilst say a Spurs fan is happy to talk about Ashley Young’s diving, they will still try and make excuses for Gareth Bale. Hence we are left in the moral no mans land of ‘well, there was contact.’

If you ever hear anyone say this phrase be it a pundit, commentator or fan (and you will) then you must treat them as a total fraud, either they do not know the laws of the game, or much worse they are unable to call out players as cheats due to misguided national or club loyalty.

by Nilesh Bhagat