Georgina Turner
Friday April 22nd, 2011

Another week, another refereeing debate. This time it's about Lee Probert's decision not to award Manchester United a penalty when Javier Hernandez ended up sprawled on the turf at the feet of Newcastle defender Danny Simpson. Man United's manager Alex Ferguson, naturally, was adamant that a spot kick ought to have been awarded; Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, naturally, felt that the greater injustice was that an earlier Anderson foul on Peter Lovenkrands hadn't resulted in a penalty.

In both cases the argument, if this jaded, late-season grumbling can be called that, hinges on how much contact was made between defender and attacker, particularly in the case of Simpson vs. Hernandez. "Simpson certainly steps across the line of Hernandez," said former Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce, on co-commentary duty in the UK. If Hernandez's airborne jerk is anything to go by, it was a greater effort to make the brief encounter of leg and toe appear to cause an unavoidable fall than to sidestep the half-aborted challenge and shoot.

"As soon as you stick that left leg out, you're asking for trouble," mused pundit Jamie Redknapp, in the studio after the final whistle. "There is definitely contact, no doubt about that," said Ferguson. He was in the midst of criticizing Probert for booking Hernandez for simulation, but the presupposition is the same: if a player feels the touch of his opponent, he is entitled to go down and expect the support of the referee.

Entitled to go down. The instant that idea hits the back of our throats, the diabolical stench of cynicism should caress our gag reflex into instant, violent action until we all promise never to mention it again. Instead it's taken up a prime position among some of the game's most banal phraseology without so much as a hiccup. Players are "intelligent" for pausing on the ball long enough to "draw the foul." If terrace parlance remains at all hesitant about wrapping its lips around that one, nobody seems to mind seeing players "giving the referee a decision to make."

That we have managed to discern and institute a difference between such incidents and Sergio Busquets making the most of Thiago Motta's hand brushing his cheek, say, or Rivaldo acting like the ball had caught him in the face, is odd, when you think about it. Essentially, they all boil down to the player's decision to dramatize contact. When did contact itself become synonymous with a foul? Just because it's not a simple fresh-air dive (as ably demonstrated by Morten Gamst Pedersen), it doesn't mean the spirit of the game isn't getting clobbered.

Of course it's frustrating for skillful or fast players to be fouled so often as some are -- Luka Modric's legs must be a marbled, bruisey blue and Theo Walcott's knees must sport permanent grass stains; Jamie Carragher's recent studs-first challenge on Nani was indefensible. But the sight of the Manchester United winger hopping about, brandishing his wounded leg in an attempt to turn yellow into red was just as galling, and symptomatic of a culture in which demonstrating an opponent's oafishness warms a player's frontal lobe before much else, including his own pain. Ensuring that the other team is (rightfully or not) disadvantaged by cautions, or a sending-off, too often takes precedence over the joy of crafting a goal from open play.

By all means let's accept that only certain players will have the quality and self belief to mince rather than wince through a corridor of lunging defenders the way David Ginola often did, but there's no such thing as being entitled to go down; it's a nonsense. You're either brought down, or you're not. Saying "he definitely touched me" is as good as an admission that surrendering to gravity was the best, rather than the inevitable, course. Yet it is passively admitted to the discourse of modern tackling, regardless.

There's a very real danger, when talking about this, of sounding like a rheumy-eyed old drunk telling a bartender just how good the good old days were. I'm even packing the nostalgic's weapon of choice, George Best. But it's hard to argue that the lexicon of entitlement doesn't betray the creeping cynicism of a win first, play second attitude.

Though he was as well known for other substances, Best said: "I got my buzz from playing," and his catalog of goals would have been considerably smaller had he cashed in on any entitlement to go down. How he managed to stay on his feet as Chelsea's Ron Harris lunged in at Stamford Bridge in 1964 is anybody's guess -- if you pause the video at the point of impact, Best is virtually at 45 degrees, on one leg -- but he didn't drop to the ground until after he'd scored. Eric Cantona showed similar resilience against Aston Villa in 1993, stumbling into the area to poke the ball beyond Mark Bosnich despite a sliding tackle. It's not hard to imagine plenty of today's players eyeing the softest spot of grass as the challenge comes.

In fact, a good proportion of the game's most memorable goals would vanish from the archives if players had "drawn fouls" as some do so blithely today. What if Lothar Matthaus had "left a foot in" so as to catch Davor Jozic's leg instead of going on to score his rasping second in West Germany's 4-1 win over Yugoslavia in 1990? Or if Michael Owen had opted for a free-kick in prime David Beckham territory versus Argentina in 1998, instead of recovering his balance against Jose Chamot and scoring one of the most iconic World Cup goals in England's history?

Remember when players could survive a lazy arm across the chest? Or even a proper tug, as Pele did in the build up to his exhilarating goal against Mexico in Brazil's 1962 World Cup opener? Part of the wonder of Davie Cooper's audacious goal for Rangers in the 1979 Drybrough Cup final against Celtic is that he first had to wriggle out of a defender's embrace. In 2004, Arsenal's Thierry Henry was forced into an outrageous backheeled goal because he was practically being mounted by Charlton defender Jonathan Fortune with his back to goal.

There's no doubt that Henry (like most of the others) was fouled according to the laws of the game. Soccer isn't a contact sport in the same way that American football is; going by the book, a clumsy attempted tackle is punishable by the same measures as holding or shoving an opponent. But the laws also include the notion of advantage, according to which, play should continue where it benefits the wronged team.

Why do we expect the referee to uphold the principle -- watch the Premier League goal of the season from 1992-93, a delicious chip by Dalian Atkinson, and then imagine the referee had blown his whistle after Gary Elkins' rudimentary body check as the Aston Villa forward charged toward goal -- but exonerate players who deliberately nix their own advantage? The laws are there to stop defenders using contact rather than skill to gain the upper hand -- not to furnish attacking players with a similar opportunity. The sooner we stop talking about phantom rights, the better.

Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of

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