x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

South Korea pay the penalty

One of the most cruel rules in football was South Korea's own undoing after their goalkeeper saved a spot kick against Japan.

Japan's Hajime Hosogai, left, follows up to score after South Korea's Jung Sung-ryong saved a penalty.
Japan's Hajime Hosogai, left, follows up to score after South Korea's Jung Sung-ryong saved a penalty.

While it would be a chore to choose the cruellest nugget from the cruelty smorgasbord of South Korea's cruel Asian Cup semi-final loss to Japan on Tuesday night, here goes one attempt:

How in the world did humanity, presumably striving for fairness and kindness in its global game, ever come up with a rule such as the one that allows football teams to score on the rebound after the goalkeeper stops - but does not hold on to - a penalty kick during a match?

How?

Did the men sitting around the table making the rule have an especially bad day or week? Had they experienced some sort of unkindness such as a stomach flu or a tax audit? Had they spent too many days growing gloomy and grouchy in persistent drizzle?

Had a goalkeeper done them wrong in some way? Did some suave goalkeeper woo away any of their girlfriends during schoolboy years? Did they deem goalkeepers lazy and unworthy next to outfield players, so aim to enshrine a sinister plot against all future goalkeepers?

Did any have a dartboard at home bearing the face of a goalkeeper?

Whatever, if this rule is not the most barbaric in sports, it rates a spot on the medal stand.

It manages to take its general meanness and inject it with a keen unfairness, an outright warping of the game. In so many ways, football does a peerless job of imitating life, but in this instance it fails on a rare technicality: it's even rougher than life.

Everybody realises the goalkeeper's gaping disadvantage at the spectre of a penalty kick; it ranks among the reasons everybody goes into a snit when a referee awards one to the enemy.

Everybody knows that when a goalkeeper stops a penalty, he or she has done yeoman work and achieved the improbable, so supporters exult. Everybody has seen how the man taking the penalty can become demoralised at not converting one, as if he has just committed an unspeakable sin which in some circles, of course, he has.

So when you take the goalkeeper's unlikely accomplishment and then tell him, Oh, no, wait, you are not finished because you did not also cover the ball, you are being a pernickety churl.

This savagery would seem abnormal if it had not grown so normal through the years, such that sometimes only new eyes can notice. I never gave it thought - it did nag me somewhere at the back of my brain - until a New York writer friend who started watching the English Premier League a few years back suddenly asked me, essentially, What's up with that?

On Tuesday night, what was up would be a South Korean loss that came cruelty wrapped around the institutional cruelty of the rebound rule.

For the overarching cruelty, the Koreans had only minutes to savour their remarkably goal in the 120th minute that levelled the match at 2-2 before they succumbed to their own fatigue in the game-deciding penalties. They lost agonisingly to their foremost rival.

Inside that cruelty, they had fallen behind in extra time only because with the match taut-as-could-be and level at 1-1 on 95 minutes, Khalil al Ghamdi, the referee, had granted a questionable penalty when Hwang Jae-won crashed into Shinji Okazaki while the latter hopelessly pursued a slick through ball from the captivating Keisuke Honda.

While Cho Kwang-rae, the South Korea manager, found it strange that al Ghamdi demurred to the linesman before determining whether that foul occurred inside the box, the call still might have wrought an overall fairness.

After all, it resembled the Japanese penalty on 23 minutes when Yasuyuki Konno crashed into Park Ji-sung in that both cases involved the chasing of a ball too far from reach so that a referee might have let it go with a warning.

For his (just) part, Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni gently found both penalty calls unnecessary.

No, the ultimate harshness came in what happened next, once Honda dribbled his penalty leftward after the clock had ticked to 97 minutes.

Korean goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, in the eternally sympathetic role in the equation, actually guessed correctly. He made a play that actually contained athleticism! He lunged to his right, and with his trailing hand managed to deflect the ball away from the precious goalmouth.

Even in an unfair world and the sport that best emulates it, that should be the finish. Goalkeeper wins. Offence retreats. Goalkeeper stands. Goalkeeper sets up spot kick. Play on.

But as Japan's Hajime Hosogai moved in - maybe even a tad too briskly - and blasted the rebound into the net, there came a reminder that football does not always emulate life because sometimes, somehow, it is even more inequitable.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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