Football must listen to Gary Neville before it’s too late
First, a window into the bright new future we want to give our children and our children’s children. A world free of confusion, controversy and injustice. A world that no longer relies on Martin Atkinson.
Champions League final, 2020. Manchester United veteran Ashley Young advances into the opposition penalty area, eyes up nearby Barcelona midfielder Jack Wilshere for the heist and contorts into familiar double pike. The Italian referee rolls his eyes but points listlessly to the spot all the same. Not his call. He barely glances to the sideline for Pep to issue the challenge with his UNICEF-sponsored flare gun. Nobody celebrates. They all know. It’s another job for upstairs.
Immediately, in the bowels of the stadium, a team of crack CSI agents get to work. Camera 44. Zoom. Depixelate. Amplify. Zoom again. It takes 40 seconds to produce the smoking gun. The faintest congress of Catalan leather with Mancunian cotton.
“By jove, there was contact. Contact, I say!” exclaims a man in a yellow hat. Immediately the scoreboard breaks the news and Old Fergie envelopes assistant Keano in a bearhug, grabbing the opportunity to spit some gum in the younger man’s hair. This could be a famous triumph for a side stripped of 14 regulars due to retrospective bans.
But joy is shortlived. Another scarlet and blue protest lights up the Roman sky. The referee pulls an iPhone 29 from his sock. On the touchline, Barca technical operative Cesc Fabregas is punching keys, taking dictation. “Pushing in the centre circle.” UEFA insists on English.
Cursing the day he left hairdressing, the Italian washes his hands again. Upstairs, camera 23. No zoom required. Jonny Evans had Messi in a headlock.
Purple now, Fergie retrieves his gum and chews furiously as the 2000 Catalans that dot the main stand celebrate. That is all there is in attendance because football is long dead. It was killed the moment they handed it over to the machines.
Not only has a sport been sapped entirely of spontaneity – all its pivotal moments are now mired in appeal and counter-appeal – but contact manipulation, as they now call the diving, is more ingrained than ever – like playing it off your opponent’s foot in hockey. If you know your stuff, the machines can prove anything is a penalty. Worse, a million little fouls that once went unpunished are now detected.
And time and again, the sport’s few remaining devotees shake their heads and wonder. Why didn’t we listen to Gary Neville?
Back in the present, an alarming thing is happening in English football. Neville – once Fergie’s snarling shop steward – is emerging as the game’s voice of reason.
Much of the growing impression he has made as a pundit is, of course, down to the top, top company he now keeps. In the presence of old teammate Dwight Yorke, the impression of sagacity is there for any man who wants it.
But Neville deserves credit alright. This week, amid the hysteria that surrounded Young’s tumble and Drogba’s hypochondria, he refused to be drawn into the hand-wringing.
Yes, everyone in football has been diving for years. Yes, English players are doing it too. No, we don’t necessarily need to wet the bed over it. Yes, video evidence might cause more problems than it solves.
And 10 words from Neville, having poured over Young’s collapse from every vantage point, illustrated the pointlessness of giving ourselves a second chance of justice.
“Yes, it was a penalty. Yes, it was a dive.”
The penalty Luis Suarez earned against Arsenal at Anfield last month is a better example. It was an imaginative piece of theatre from the Uruguayan but later Sky, with foot to the floor on the zoom, were able to prove slight contact with Wojciech Szcz?sny’s knee.
In our brave new world, it would still be a penalty. We’d be as wrong then as we are now.
This is not, of course, to say we shouldn’t have a Hawkeye on the goalline. Even Platini, despite giving ungainful employment to his spare parts behind each goal, must be coming around to that.
But for anything more, we might be as well to listen, not just to Neville, but to one of the best referees of all; Pierluigi Collina.
“We have to accept there is a match played on the pitch with its own facts and another that happens at the same time – the match shown by television – that has facts that might be slightly different from the other game.”
And we might, above all, be careful what we wish for.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner