Why football has a lot to learn

As the famous saying goes, football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen and the more time I spend watching both sports it is hard to disagree. It is becoming almost impossible to argue that football is worthy of being called the ‘beautiful game’ when you compare it with rugby. Having been a late-comer to the wonders of the egg-shaped ball game, I now spend weekends watching both sports and every time I tune into the rugby it leaves me thinking about what football could learn from them.

In just one 80 minute match a constant stream of changes that need making to football will run through your head and it will almost certainly be detrimental to your enjoyment of our national sport once the rose-tinted football glasses are removed to show the games’ ugly head. Even those that don’t appreciate rugby will begin to realise that rather than a brutal, uneducated game there is intelligence, respect and an ability to change within the sport that further highlights the problems we face.

People will say that this argument is completely flawed because the sports are inherently different in every way: the shape of the ball, the amount of players, the scoring, the breaks in play and the basic rules and more. But ignoring this, the conduct of the players, the use of video technology and the quality of officiating is far superior in rugby, and that’s the problem for football that needs to be addressed.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the conduct of the players that we pay to see represent our clubs. Every week there is a player that attempts to deceive the referee by diving. It is one of the most frustrating facets of the game to see somebody going to ground as if they have been shot when a member of the opposition gets within touching distance. There is no glossing over the fact that this happens and affects most games, whether it earns their team a penalty or gets them out of a difficult situation near their own goal. Players are hardly ever punished and even receiving a yellow card isn’t going to affect them so for the likes of Nani and Sergio Busquets the reward outways the punishment and even if a referee decided to tackle the problem by booking everybody that dived then there would be a record number of cards handed out and they would be chastised by managers, pundits and fans alike.

While in rugby, feigning injuries and diving is extremely rare. It is a brutal, full-blooded game where tough tackles are par for the course but there are strict parameters that are heavily enforced on players that break the rules with high and dangerous tackles. For a player to pretend that they were a victim of a dangerous challenge in order to gain an advantage is unheard of and ridiculous. In 2009, the sport was embroiled in the Bloodgate scandal where a player feigned an injury so his team could make a blood substitution. When the cheating was found out those who created the incident were banned from the game and since then the incident hasn’t been repeated. If footballers decided to obey the rules rather than manipulate them, maybe games would be won by the better side rather than the team that included the good actor.

In football, players treat officials like verbal punch bags, hurling abuse in their direction for daring to give a decision against a multi-million pound star. The sight of players surrounding the referee is all too common (particularly at Old Trafford) and is a slap in the face to the failing Respect campaign set up by the FA. Players swearing, shouting, pushing and harassing referees are disgraceful and the respect that these stars have for the man in charge is minimal if it exists at all. Even though the referee will not change his decision once it’s made it doesn’t stop them venting their anger.

Instead, rugby players learn from an early age to call the referee “Sir” and only speak to him when he addresses you first. It is only the captain that can question a referees’ decision but that is done in a respectful way and there is no chance they would get away with using foul and abusive language towards the official. Having watched football for so many years, to begin watching a different sport and seeing the referee spoken to as if he was the school headmaster was a shock, especially when you see the considerable difference in size between player and ref, so why can’t that same rule be taken into football? Swearing isn’t the problem here, it’s the lack of respect. Players are ruining matches by intimidating officials into giving the decisions there way and if they continue to do their job then teams criticise them after the game. Like diving it is something that we know is a problem but until you watch a game of rugby it is difficult to comprehend just how bad the problem is.
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One way of dealing with the problem would be to give the referee a microphone for each game so we can hear every conversation they have with a player because although players should show respect, referees should be accountable as well. Far too often a referee makes a shocking decision but never comes out to justify what he did or apologise for making a mistake but if they we were able to hear everything they said to their linesmen, their fourth official and the players when they give a decision then we would be able to understand it. It would offer an explanation to fans who think the referee is against them, it may breed respect from players to referees because everything they say could be heard and it would make sure that the officials justify their decision and prevent any arrogance or aggression from them back to the players.

However, even more important than a microphone is the use of video technology. In rugby it is to determine whether or not a try has been scored, with the referee asking for help in making the decision and it guarantees the correct decision. Although it usually takes less than a minute the game is already stopped so there is no disruption caused by the referral system like there would be in football. Not always does the ball go straight out of play after a possible goal so there is no opportunity for the referee to ask for help. One of the great aspects of the football is that it is fast paced and constantly moving so the argument that this would be ruined by video technology is a good point. However, there have been so many moments that would have been affected if we had the technology that it needs to be introduced. If the referee and linesman can’t decide whether the ball crossed the line or not then the game should be stopped while they ask for the video referee to take a look. It is very rare that a team has gone up the other end and scored straight after so it wouldn’t be affecting the game too much. Alternatively, a cricket style referral system should be in place, offering teams a specific number of opportunities to ask for a video consult during the game. Things like Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in the World Cup play-offs could be referred and the right decision made.

The idea of a sin-bin is another aspect of rugby that has been toyed with in football circles and could well serve a purpose in the game. Somewhere between a booking and a sending off, it could be used to deal with players caught diving and disrespecting the officials by giving sending them off the pitch for 10 minutes before allowing them back on. It means that something that two of the more despicable parts of our game are punished with more than just a yellow card but they aren’t put on a par with things that are violent or dangerous. This no-nonsense approach to the situation is likely to be the best way to finally eradicate it from the game.

When the problems are laid out in front of you as they are when you watch a game of rugby followed by football, there is only one reason why these changes aren’t already in place: controversy sells.

There is no such thing as bad publicity and every week the sports pages are full of negative stories about the game, the poor decisions and the actions of the players. Analysis of a game will almost certainly focus around penalties, diving and red cards so how would they fill the airtime if there was nothing to discuss? Similarly what would newspapers fill their spaces with and how would they write about sport without a major talking point? Controversy is a unique commercial commodity and it is presents infinite opportunities to journalists who need to have something to say. It has meant that football is now dishonest but it is insanely lucrative and we all still love it.

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and a game of teamwork, passion and athleticism is far more enjoyable than what we have now but it won’t stop us watching and FIFA know that.

So as much as these changes need to be made for the good of the game, don’t expect them any time soon.

Should football learn lessons from rugby? Tell me on Twitter @jrobbins1991.