EVEN though the Premier League doesn’t begin for a fortnight, the return of lower league action has been a welcome relief for the football-starved obsessives who have found a summer of tennis, golf and cricket all a bit on the margins. But it also brought the return of petty gamesmanship and rule-bending on a scale that makes England batsman Stuart Broad’s refusal to walk when out appear almost laudable in its blatant dishonesty.
Forget the diving and play-acting, which in fairness are nothing like as prevalent outside the top flight. In no particular order, it’s the refusal to go back 10 yards at a free kick, time wasting over throw-ins and fetching a ball, kicking the ball away to disrupt the rhythm of the opposition, and constant disputing of decisions, all of which incense and incite the crowd. Just imagine how much more enjoyable a spectacle it would be with none of the above.
In fact, all you have to do is watch hockey. I have witnessed nearly 30 matches at the under-21 women’s World Cup in Germany over the past 10 days, in which England, having beaten both the hosts and Australia, came agonisingly close to winning the bronze medal, losing out to India on penalties in the 3rd/4th play-off. Two dozen matches and more in which the slightest dissent has resulted in a sin-binning. The vaguest suggestion of not retiring five yards at a free hit allows the miscreant five minutes off the field to consider the error of their ways. The moment the ball goes off the pitch, another one is ready on the touchline to allow play to be all but continuous. Fitness levels are extraordinary. There is just no time to take a breather. You get more goalmouth action, and you can’t kill the game off in the last ten minutes.
There is a stubborn and arrogant refusal within football to learn any lessons from other sports, hence the endless prevarication over goal-line technology. A brief flirtation with pushing defensive walls back 10 yards, as in rugby union, was abandoned because referees weren’t given the support they needed from the governing bodies. But don’t say you can’t have more than one ball in football, and what possible justification is there for not introducing the sin bin for all those irritating offences that spoil every match? Enforce it thoroughly and within six weeks you could transform the game and players’ behaviour. Even the most one-eyed of the football-and-only-football obsessives would surely welcome that.