12 March 2019
As Manchester United were writing another remarkable chapter into their European history in Paris last week, one person refused to accept the defeat was justified. Quickly taking to his keyboard, Brazilian Neymar was berating the officials who had awarded United a stoppage time penalty. Labelling the VAR decision ‘a disgrace’ he went on to say, ‘they put four people who know nothing about football in charge of looking at the replay for VAR.’
Neymar is of course no stranger to dubious decisions…primarily because he seems to focus his attention on throwing himself to the floor if he feels a gust of wind, while pretending to have been steamrollered by somebody half a yard behind him. A player who spends so much time being dishonest in his behaviour is hardly in a position to critique the decision making process.
Despite the dubious source of the criticism, it was a well-timed comment given the selection of new rules being brought in for next season. We have known for some time that VAR has finally been given the opportunity to prove itself on the Premier League stage, but key to United’s momentous evening in Paris was that handball decision. This is the focus of one of four new rules for next season.
We are used to hearing Martin Tyler and his colleagues debating handball decisions. Most commonly, the debate tends to focus on whether handball is deemed intentional, along with whether the hand is in a natural position. There isn’t a player in the land who hasn’t screamed for a spot-kick when they have unleashed a shot from close range onto a defending hand just centimetres in front of them.
These such occasions rarely yield a penalty nowadays, but with players flapping their arms behind their back while trying to defend, the natural position debate has long needed clarifying. However, the new rule stops short of full clarification. From next season, a goal that has hit a player’s hand, regardless of whether accidental or intentional, will not stand. It seems a half measure that won’t really address the issue.
Of the other rules, two are like this season’s change to the kick-off in as much as they seem to be an answer to a question nobody was asking. Coaches will now be able to collect yellow and red cards in the same manner as their players, while attacking players can no longer insert one of their own into the opposition’s defensive wall. It seems that calls for cracking down on diving, or the ability to retrospectively punish players even if the referees have seen an incident already are going untouched. The lawmakers certainly seem to be skirting around the issues irritating supporters the most.
Sadly, the final seemingly innocuous change, while well-intentioned, may be a very poorly timed amendment the authorities may come to regret. We already knew that stoppage time substitutions will no longer be allowed next season, intended to stop time-wasting. However, the latest change goes further, removing the need for a departing player to leave the field of play via the dugout touchline. It’s a change that seems insignificant enough and presumably intended to remove the pain of seeing players amble off the field from the farthest point, shaking hands with all who cross their path on their slow plod from the pitch.
The problem with this change is that this weekend has emphasised a growing issue in football – the crowd trouble. Scotland is already having weekly issues with fan behaviour, most recently with bottle throwing and the confrontation of Rangers captain James Tavernier. But Sunday saw Birmingham City and Arsenal join Hibernian on the shameful behaviour list. Jack Grealish took a punch from behind from a Blues ‘supporter’, while Chris Smalling was the target of an Arsenal ‘fan’.
Most people know that the seating around the dugout tends to be occupied by less vociferous folks. Here it seems that fans encroaching onto the pitch is highly unlikely, with a far more mobile collection of security ready to tackle any potential intruder than the less mobile stewards seated or laying down around other areas of the pitch. But when the need to leave the pitch from one central point is taken away, the sadly increasing problem is only likely to get worse. Grealish departing St Andrews and then having to walk around two and a half stands of baying Brummies is hardly likely to decrease the likelihood of aggressive behaviour towards him.
Neymar’s rant about the United penalty was way off on the particular decision. But one cannot help but wonder whether he has a point about the individuals making the calls. Would the relevant police forces be thrilled to parade a pantomime villain around three stands? Hardly likely. Is the handball situation going to be clearer next season? As much chance of Neymar staying on his feet for ten minutes…maybe the Brazilian could take over the law-making decisions instead.