x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Armchair referees call foul over back-heels and handballs

Commentators are in a fury over a UAE striker's back-heel penalty goal. Are they actually trying to make football completely joyless?

All footballers are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

Twenty-nine years ago, the player once dubbed "Pythagoras in boots" for the ingenuity of his passes, Johan Cruyff, was awarded a penalty while playing in the Dutch League at the tail end of his career. All seemed normal as Cruyff placed the ball on the penalty spot. What happened next has become legend.

Cruyff tapped the ball sideways to the oncoming Jesper Olsen, who advanced towards a bamboozled goalkeeper, before squaring the ball back to Cruyff, who tapped the ball into an empty net.

Penalties count as a free-kicks, giving the option of more than one touch, so the referee had no option but to award the goal. Few thoughts were spared for the poor goalkeeper Otto Versfeld.

The same routine was badly muffed by Robert Pires and Thierry Henry of Arsenal in 2005, but the trick is regarded as yet another proof of Cruyff's genius. He displayed cheek, quick thinking and skill - without breaking the rules. But that was Cruyff: the embodiment of Total Football and one of the greatest players of all time.

Now contrast that with the storm that engulfed the UAE's young striker Awana Diab, whose brilliantly improvised back-heeled penalty goal against Lebanon has drawn accusations of gamesmanship and disrespect for the opposition players, fans and even his own managers. He was even booked by the referee, perhaps the first time in history anyone has been cautioned for being too clever.

While it's hard to argue that Diab, suddenly a household name thanks to YouTube, was a naughty boy who showed a degree of arrogance, he did not break any rules. In any case, a little arrogance never did Beckenbauer, Maradona, Cantona, Zidane and, of course, Cruyff any harm. And if you can't have a bit of fun when you're 6-2 up in a meaningless friendly match, then when?

Never, if the moral guardians of football - usually people who have never played the game - have anything to do with it. And at the heart of the debate is their failure to differentiate between showmanship, even gamesmanship, and outright cheating.

Uruguay's brilliant Luis Suarez was preposterously accused of cheating for singlehandedly - literally in this case - keeping his country in the World Cup last year. Except he did nothing of the sort. He was sent off for his notorious last minute handball and Ghana were awarded a last-minute penalty that could have made them the first African nation to reach the World Cup semi-finals. But it was missed, Suarez celebrated and the world almost ended.

Sometimes the waters are muddied because of who the player is. On Saturday, Manchester City's Mario Balotelli was substituted - just like Diab - after only half an hour of another (meaningless) friendly against the LA Galaxy when he inexplicably back-heeled the ball instead of shooting. Unlike Diab, he missed, prompting his manager's wrath, this time for a good reason.

"If you have a chance to score, you should score," manager Roberto Mancini said. "If you are serious, you can play 90 minutes. If not, you can come and sit by me on the bench."

But Balotelli is by most accounts a difficult player. Perhaps this was the kick that broke Mancini's back. The young Italian has a history of irritating his managers with training ground bust-ups, needless sendings off and general misbehaviour. But throwing the book at him for this stupid, but ultimately harmless, act is punishing the wrong crime.

So where to draw the line? Are goalkeepers disrespecting penalty takers by trying to distract during their run up? Isn't feigning injury far more disrespectful than back-heeling a penalty? What about professional fouls? And does Lionel Messi disrespect opponents on a weekly basis by stripping them of their dignity?

Football needs to stop taking itself so seriously. Let the players play, and leave the rest to referees. You can always count on the officiating to squeeze the fun out of the game anyway.