Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Football can be very unappealing

I watched a ball kicking contest on the television yesterday between Manchester United and Arsenal. Having grown up in Sussex and being a long-standing resident of Highbury my support (such as it is) has always been directed at Manchester United. The game wasn't particularly entertaining because United were wholly dominant from first to last and Arsenal seemed to have neither the will nor the skill to fight back after conceding two early goals. Apparently another bunch of cheating thugs based in London was eliminated from the same tournament this evening and the final will pit United against Barcelona in three weeks' time. I'm not particularly interested in football, in fact I find it rather tiresome as a spectator sport and the behaviour of almost all the players is nothing less than organised cheating. To an extent it shouldn't really matter if the game is administered unfairly given that the players spend so much of their time trying to mislead the referee into awarding them free kicks and throw-ins, but something arising from yesterday's game really shocked me.

Towards the end of the match a Manchester United player was adjudged to have committed a foul and was sent off. He will not now be allowed to play in the final against Barcelona. Apparently there is no right of appeal no matter how incorrect the referee's decision might have been save in two very limited circumstances. The first is where there is a case of mistaken identity such that the referee has mistaken one coiffurred and tattooed millionaire ponce for another. The other is where the referee himself admits that he was in error. I find this a quite bizarre state of affairs.

For all its thuggishness, professional ball kicking is big business and the players have only a limited time playing at the very top level. The player who was sent off yesterday is Scottish so he will never play in any important international games, his chances to fulfill his potential are restricted to club football. Perhaps he will never again have the opportunity to play in the final of the European Cup. And so far as his team is concerned their chances of winning could be compromised by his absence, something not only of personal importance to the players and supporters but of huge financial significance to the business of the football club itself.

How can it possibly be right that there can be no appeal against a decision with far-reaching consequences? On looking into matters a little further I have discovered that in the English league system clubs can appeal against a player being sent-off but not against him being given a formal caution during a match (something I will always think of as a booking but which we must now call a yellow card). Yet an accumulation of yellow cards leads to suspension from future matches even if each referee issuing the caution was wrong to do so.

Not having a right of appeal against an incorrect decision strikes me as fundamentally wrong. Having said that, restricting rights of appeal has been a feature of the development of English civil litigation over the last twenty or so years. When I started in the law a disgruntled litigant had an automatic right to appeal against almost any decision. None but the most foolhardy would just appeal willy-nilly because an unsuccessful appeal could be very expensive, nevertheless the system acknowledged that decisions at the lowest rung of the judicial ladder are made by just one person who can get it wrong so there was an opportunity to, in effect, seek a second opinion. Rules set various tests that had to be met to overturn rulings in different types of case and from different ranks of judge resulting in some decisions being easier to change than others. The technical details don't matter, what was important was that the system recognised the fallibility of human judgment and that it can have a profound effect on real people.

There was then a major change about twenty years ago. A general requirement was introduced for obtaining permission from the court before you could appeal (there were some exceptional instances in which permission was not required but they were rare). And, somewhat strangely, you had to seek permission to appeal from the very judge who had ruled against you. This might sound like a recipe for embarrassment and in front of some judges it was because they took it as a personal insult. Fortunately they were few in number, but it was still a slightly uncomfortable thing to seek to persuade a judge he was wrong when the ink of his signature at the bottom of the judgment was not yet dry. Even if he or she refused permission to appeal you always had the right to ask the appellate court for permission. You might or might not have been correct in thinking that the first judge got something wrong but at least you had the chance to put your objection and if there appeared to be something substantial in your point you would be given the chance to make a formal appeal. This filtering system actually worked very well and I presume it still does.

The idea that you should have no way of challenging a plainly erroneous decision strikes me as absurd unless there are special reasons justifying that position. I can see, for example, that a right to appeal every decision for a free kick or throw-in by reference to television pictures might cause any sport to be delayed and stultified. Decisions about whether to award a penalty and whether the ball has crossed the line for a goal are in a different category because they can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game. Decisions leading to players being suspended from participation in future matches are even more serious. Maybe yesterday's referee was correct, maybe he was not. I don't know. But I can understand the argument voiced by the commentators at the time, and by many observers since, that he was completely wrong. For there be no way of raising that argument would be said by some to be a breach of the player's (and possibly the club's) human rights. I prefer to look at it as being unfair and, therefore, unacceptable without the political dimension of "human rights" being dragged into the matter.

This seems to be yet another example of a self-important transnational body (in this case UEFA) setting itself above the standards of decency and fair play by which we little people try to live. The UN does it and the EU does it so it is perhaps no surprise that other unaccountable bodies with access to virtually unlimited amounts of other people's money should do it as well.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article, that neatly outlines one of the problems inherent within football's administrative structure that is rarely mentioned, even by its more intelligent observers.

I came to the conclusion (sometime in the mid to late nineties) that the football's disciplinary process was fundamentally flawed, firstly in that it did not, possibly could not, achieve its apparent aim, and secondly that the process itself was marred by both a lack of transparency, and lack of meaningful incentives / disincentives.

That said I disagree with your final conclusion entirely, because UEFA, FIFA and indeed our own beloved FA, can not be equated with the UN or the EU, simply because a) they have precisely zero legislative/coercive power outside of football, and b) the football bodies do make the attempt to encourage concepts of decency and fair play. Whether the football administrators are effective in this, or can ever succeed, is a different question.

james c said...

'Apparently another bunch of cheating thugs based in London was eliminated from the same tournament this evening'

An unusual statement about my friends from Fulham, but chacun a son gout.

It would be amusing to let the lawyers run football, but I can't imagine the game adopting English law.