Jan Molby

How can we end theatrics in football? Four things FIFA could do

Jan Molby

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Arjen Robben’s involvement in the late penalty which sent the Netherlands through to the World Cup quarter-finals at the expense of Mexico really has split the footballing audience.

Some argue that the contact in the box made it a clear enough foul. The rest say that Robben made the most out of that contact, as he has several times in his career.

It’s not the first contentious penalty at the tournament, of course. Fred’s milking of a bit of argy-bargy inside the box on opening day was perhaps crucial to the fact Brazil advanced and Croatia didn’t. And, ironically enough, the Dutch were victims themselves when they momentarily went behind to Spain.

There, Diego Costa cut inside his man and only had to continue to stride forward in order to have a good shot at goal, or perhaps square it for an even simpler finish for a team-mate. Instead, his back foot went back down where it was, which is not how one moves forward but rather stays exactly where they are.

That’s because sticking around when he was on the verge of beating his man led to the easiest option of all: taking the penalty.

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All of these instances really blur the lines of what should or should not constitute a foul, especially in the area where almost all modern attackers are thinking more about the penalty spot than they are about attempting a world-class finish – particularly frustrating when we’ve seen so many in Brazil so far.

We know these men could continue to produce even more brilliant football, but instead they opt for a ‘safe’ option. Slightly understandable, given what’s at stake. But that means it’s up to FIFA to control just how much gamesmanship is allowed to seep into ‘the beautiful game’.

How can they do this? Well, let’s look at some of the possibilities many have suggested whenever controversies like this crop up.

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Firstly, and particularly in the wake of the Robben penalty, is the precedent of a referee punishing a foul while at the same time punishing anyone who overreacts to being fouled. You just don’t see it happen, and yet the two are completely separate matters which should not be put into the same category. Any given incident isn’t necessarily one or the other.

Another suggestion that has been made more than once is adding a third tier to the cards system. Oscar Duarte was sent off in Costa Rica’s crucial last-16 clash with Greece for making two late challenges. I was always of the belief that yellows should be given for cynical and deliberate or reckless and dangerous fouls.

It’s not the easiest thing in the world for a referee to gauge which of these a foul is sometimes, but having a third card may well make it more difficult for those guilty of nothing more than mis-timing their challenges to be overly punished or suspended, while perhaps making it difficult for crafty attackers to really drop them in it with an extra-curricular scream or roll to make it seem less innocent than it was.

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There is of course the long-fancied concept of punishing those guilty of unnecessary theatrics after the game has ended. It may seem like a stronger deterrent, but believe it or not there will be some players who’d still consider a worthwhile sacrifice to win a tough knockout game on such a large stage, and managers who’ll be picking out players worth sacrificing for a result.

Finally, many sports rave about the ‘challenges’ system. Tennis being one, and we’re in the middle of Wimbledon right now. There’s been some talk from those in football that they’d welcome the opportunity for managers to have a limited set of ‘challenges’ to make in situations like the Robben one – not just for the penalty, but for the first-half dive he openly admitted to.

The thing that makes me doubtful about any of the above four is that the problem isn’t necessarily wiped out. Each would remain open to interpretation in some way. Errors will continue to happen, and will likely continue to come at a price for someone.

But, I hope FIFA do look into ways to make the difference between a foul and how a player reacts to being challenged less murky. The more shortcuts we can remove from a team’s disposal, the more they’ll have to really dig deep and play classy, riveting football.

And as the majority of the World Cup so far has proven, there’s nothing better when it is at the forefront.

Jan Molby is covering all things World Cup for Eurosport.

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