The Italian team celebrate victory

So Italy have taken the title for a fourth time, bringing their tally to four, edging them out as the best in Europe, and ending what should be acknowledged as one of the worst tournaments in recent memory. For the second time in its history, the final was settled on a penalty shoot-out, the feeling of the fans towards the end soured by a red card for Zinedine Zidane for headbutting Marco Materazzi.

There can be little doubt that the tournament was marred by some dire games, poor refereeing decisions, strange FIFA interference, and a generally lack-lustre performance from many of the teams, particularly towards the end of the tournament. Can any blame be apportioned for this? Or was it simply the luck of the draw that this tournament was destined to be poor viewing for the spectators? Of course, credit should be apportioned where it is due, and both the hosts and the fans did an excellent job in ensuring the tournament was shrouded in a carnival atmosphere, and the focus for the media could be left to the football.

FIFA Interference

Certainly the influence of FIFA in the running of this and other tournaments should not be underestimated. Right from the start of this tournament there has been an eye to changing the way the rules are interpreted, for example in the vain attempt at eradicating time-wasting. Yet the result was plain for all to see: confusion amongst the referees. The interpretation of FIFA’s new legislation caused a great deal of inconsistency in the decisions, players getting unwarranted yellow cards that then contribute to sendings off or suspensions. This ultimately led to that calamitous match between Portugal and Holland, adjudicated by the Russian Valentin Ivanov, in which the first yellow card was shown inside of 2 minutes, and four players were eventually sent off (a new record for the World Cup finals). In the aftermath, the referees seemed to show a modicum of independence from the governing body, and the majority of the latter matches of the competition were diligently mediated.

The question is why FIFA deem it necessary to change the rules of the game at all. The traditionalists are naturally inclined to resist any change to the letter of the law, yet it should be pointed out that not only do we see evolution in all of the major sports, but this has also in the past been of demonstrable benefit to the game. In the 1998 World Cup, FIFA deemed tackles from behind to be worthy of a straight red card. Whilst this appears to have been relaxed to a yellow in this tournament, it has generally been accepted to have been an improvement, as players and commentators alike will admit that a clean tackle from behind is nigh-on impossible. Nevertheless, going back to Zizou’s sending off in the final against Italy, obviously motivated by something said to him by the Italian defender, one is reminded of the similar incident in the 1998 World Cup finals in which he was sent off in a game against Saudi Arabia, on a day in which FIFA officials found their calls for more red cards suddenly oversubscribed.

Rules of the game

So where have the rules of the game gone astray? Certainly there seems to be, and has generally been, a different slant on the rules of the game at the pinacle. If one takes a glance at FIFA’s official rules, one can clearly see that the letter of the law is not only bent, it is plainly broken. Yellow cards are warranted for the following offences:

  1. is guilty of unsporting behaviour
  2. shows dissent by word or action
  3. persistently infringes the Laws of the Game
  4. delays the restart of play

For the sake of comparison, let’s take two of the tournament’s key players, England’s current villain of the hour, Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo, and his now all-time high scoring namesake from Brazil, Ronaldo. Whilst it would be no surprise to find an English blog criticising C Ronaldo’s performance in the World Cup, it seems to have been pretty universally acknowledged that his attempts at diving have brought embarassment upon himself and the Portuguese team. Despite being one of the most tallented, and certainly more inspiring players at this World Cup, his cross-discipline diving has been rewarded with neither yellow cards, nor the 9.5 average it deserves. C Ronaldo ended his World Cup with a single yellow card earned for a challenge in the match against Angola. His Brazilian namesake, on the contrary, could barely move fast enough to challenge someone, and yet earned himself two yellow cards, one for kicking a ball into the back of the net when the referee had already blown for offside, and a second for deliberate handball in the wall of a free kick, though the replays suggest he knew little about it and was trying vainly to protect his innocent good looks.

The laws of the game have changed such that the game itself is perceptibly different from what it was in previous decades. One very infrequent spectator of the game commented on the amount of fouling that takes place, asking which part of ‘non-contact sport’ did the players not understand? And frankly, with the way the referees acted in some of the games in this competition, it is understandable that this contact sport could be so disguised.

Of course, there are other rules that provoke debate, particularly when they are seen to prevent flowing, attacking football. How many times did we see a player kick a ball between someone’s legs and run into him, only to earn his team a free kick for ‘obstruction’ or impeding the progress of an opponent? Yet running behind a ball, with no intention of playing it, and using your body to shield away any opponent, as it runs out of play or into the possession of the goalkeeper is phrased as ‘shepherding’. There is certainly some merit in the latter; can we see the folly in the former?

Which brings us to every man’s favourite: the offside rule. Whilst this competition was no different to its forerunners, and in fact should be upheld as a pretty decent example of how the rule can be used to good effect, this does not prevent mistakes being made. By this, I do not refer to occasional goals being allowed/disallowed when there is a blatant mistake by the linesman. More importantly, it seems that should the defence appeal and stop running, it takes a very brave linesman to keep his flag down, and only in the most clearcut of situations does this occur.

World Cup 2006

So was there more to just FIFA interference and poor interpretation of the rules of the game which prevented this World Cup being one of the more memorable ones? The dire refereeing decisions can only truly count for spoiling a small percentage of the games, and indeed in the second half of the competition they should be given much credit for taking the game back into their hands. Perhaps we can apportion more blame on FIFA for their insistence on introducing a ‘new ball’ to the competition. No, it doesn’t have a microchip installed which will clearly show when it crosses a line, rather it has more panels and as a result ‘really flies’ as many commentators have informed us. And we didn’t really need them to tell us that, as shot after shot went sailing into the back rows. To take one of the more prolific strikers of the ball, Frank Lampard hit 96 shots in the competition, more than any other player, and very few of those hit the target let alone rippled the net. That is not to say that the atmosphere and the nerves of the big stage did not get to him, or he simply wasn’t on his game, but it certainly begs the question.

Yet it does appear that some blame must be apportioned to the teams themselves. We need only take a look at the ‘best goal of the tournament’ on the BBC, as 9 of the 10 shortlisted came from the group stages, to see how the teams changed their actions in the later stages. It could be argued that the teams simply came up against better opposition in the later stages, but any spectator would be able to confirm that the performances of the latter stages often lacked in quality. Nevertheless, the final teams were representative of the game’s great names, as all of the previous winners present in the competition reached the quarter-finals (only Uruguay was missing, knocked out by Australia in the qualifiers). And there was some possibility to rekindle the spirit of the ’80s, as for the first time since 1982 all of the semi-finalists were European teams, and for the first time since 1986 did both teams score in the final. Yet it ended on that rather sour note and a penalty shoot-out for only the second time. This competition did set a few records for the World Cup finals, but it will probably be remembered for those which did the game a disservice – the first team to get knocked out of the competition despite not conceding a goal (Switzerland), the first team to get knocked out of the competition without scoring on a penalty shootout (Switzerland), equal most disciplinary cards and most red cards in a match (Netherlands v Portugal), most red cards in a tournament – rather than the few for which the game is lauded – the tournament’s 2000th goal (Marcus Allbäck vs England), Ronaldo’s record-breaking 15th goal in the World Cup finals, and Zidane’s record-equalling 3rd World Cup final goal in a record-equalling two World Cup finals.