When it comes to football, I hesitate to suggest that the Scottish FA can teach the rest of the world anything but they have one little strategy that might be worth consideration. The thought came to me when watching Tottenham’s Europa League clash against Ukrainian side Dnipro last Thursday. I’m sure that most of us were pleased to see Spurs turn the game around, especially after no other English team had won in Europe during the past fortnight. Trailing one-nil from the first leg they went further behind when Roman Zozulya scored a vital away goal for the visitors. This meant that Spurs now needed to score three goals in order to progress in the competition. With the away goal rule even if they got to 2–2 it would have been Dnipro who would have played in the next round. As it was, Spurs made a spirited comeback finishing 3–1 and 3-2 on aggregate.
What soured it for me was the play-acting by Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen when the score was at one goal each, which resulted in the Dnipro goal scorer Zozulya being dismissed from the game. Whilst waiting for a free kick to be taken just outside the Dnipro’s penalty area, Vertonghen marched aggressively up to Zozulya and put his head in his face. Zozulya held his ground and there appeared to be a minimal contact, upon which Vertonghen threw himself to the ground clutching his face. The French referee, presumably only seeing the end of the incident immediately went over and showed Zozulya the red card. Zozulya was so enraged that he had to be restrained otherwise Vertonghen might well have really been laid out. It was a piece of callous play acting or shall we give it its correct term, cheating, to get an opponent sent off.
My condemnation of Vertonghen is tempered only by the old saying, ‘he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword’. Dnipro’s players had been cheating and feigning injury themselves during the game. On one occasion one of the Ukrainian players following a Spurs player, ran into his back and then fell to the ground clutching his face as if he had been caught by the opponent’s elbow. The referee gave a free kick against Spurs although no cards were shown. The replay showed no such contact had been made. There are those who will say that the referee should spot these transgressions but these players have become past masters of this dark art. We viewers of course have the benefit of replays, different angles and slow motion. The fault lays with the players not the referee, which brings me to the actions of the Scottish FA. As I understand it they have a panel which views post-match any suggestion of diving or feigning injury and guilty players receive retrospective punishment. Under the Laws of the Game, that punishment for unsporting behaviour can only be a caution and a fine and not a suspension. It may not be seen as much of a deterrent but cautions and fines add up.
Newspapers glossed over the Vertonghen incident as did the club but fans were not so reticent in their tweets after the match. One said that ‘we don’t want this sort of behaviour in English football’. Of course it would be wrong to suggest that it is only carried out by foreign players but this country has a greater sense of fair play than most other competing nations. I remember Didier Drogba when first questioned about his play acting, shrugged his shoulders, so what? Until someone told him that this country viewed it differently. I hope that UEFA won’t shrug its shoulders, for nothing will change unless action is taken.