Controversy in football: Do we love it?

Opinion

Anything can happen in football. Surprising events and results now happen so frequently we should expect the unexpected. Very rarely does a weekend of matches, or a tournament, pass without an incident requiring further dissection, analysis and discussion.

Goal line decisions have been taken care of at the top level in recent months with the introduction of enhanced video technology. The feedback to the referee is almost instant and eradicates the possibility of incorrect decisions made over goal line incidents.

But it still leaves other incidents. Dubious handballs like Thierry Henry palming the ball back into play, ultimately preventing Ireland from reaching an international tournament. Penalty decisions where it is not clear if the player was brought down inside or outside the penalty area. And in some cases, the actual foul can be committed outside the box whilst the player goes down inside.

We have seen wayward two footed tackles with studs showing sometimes with malicious intent. The Seamus Coleman leg break incident where he was victim of a horror tackle is a distinct possibility in many grassroots and Sunday league games up and down the country.

Sunderland’s Seb Larsson was sent off against Manchester United for a tackle on Ander Herrera. After the game his manager, David Moyes, said: “He gets the ball, he touches the ball. There’s no contact at all, so it’s not even a booking.” The Black Cats went on to appeal the decision which was rejected by the FA. The bottom line is shown in replays. Larsson dives into the tackle and Herrera cleverly recognises the danger. The Spaniard pulls out and Larsson takes the ball. So Moyes was right. He did get the ball. He did touch the ball. There was no contact at all. But it was a red card.

Referees cannot withhold a red card if no contact is made. For Herrera, the tackle triggered an internal, psychological safety mechanism. He sensed danger and took action to avoid it. Whether or not Larsson makes contact – his action of diving in dangerously would always unfold the same way – and needed a consequence.

If Seamus Coleman had recognised the danger of Neil Taylor’s lunge and jumped out the way, the Welshman would have whisked the ball up without any contact. But it should still have been a straight red. Whether or not all referees would have made this decision is another question entirely.

Other sports, like athletics, have similar controversies. Relay teams have been disqualified for illegal baton exchanges and sprinters removed from races for encroaching into other lanes. But it does not come with the same regularity as football. Controversies enrich the game. They make it come alive for the fans after the event and adds to the dramatic narrative that no other sport can match.

If we removed controversy the appeal would be lost. One of the attractions of football is the soap opera drama offered on a weekly basis. Anything can happen; Leicester City winning the Premier League after avoiding relegation the previous year, Manchester United and Liverpool both coming from behind to win Champions League Finals, Barcelona overturning a 4-0 first leg defeat to PSG in an extraordinary return fixture, and England losing to the Icelandic minnows to truly show that on their day anyone can beat anyone.

Controversial incidents give ordinary fans talking points about the game that can be dissected and debated over at length. The in-depth discussion and analysis of football, inside and outside of the media, often in pubs or over water coolers, is unrivalled in sport. It is a draw for fans. No other sport has television and radio shows dedicated to hours of discussion, reportage and examination of the week’s sporting events.

Football has become living historiography built up on a daily basis – another magic of the game. Through engaged dialogue, ordinary fans have become football historians. Each able to remember distinct events and be able to analyse them at some point on a spectrum. An old, often heard adage is “football is more than a game”. That is true because of our relationship with it. It is living history unfolding before our very eyes and moulding our every memory.

And that is why we always comes back for more.