Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Penalty Goal

Last night's European Cup (sorry, Champions' League) final was not short of controversy. Jens Lehmann, the Arsenal goalkeeper, became the first person to be sent off in such an occasion, a decision that has caused some backlash. The problem came not so much from the decision to send Lehmann off, for it was a clear foul. The ball, however, ran to a Barcelona player, who then slotted the ball calmly into the back of the net. The early whistle of the referee prevented the award of a goal.

For a while, it looked as if Lehmann might have been a tactical genius. Arsenal were clearly the poorer side last night, and I doubt they could have won if they had fallen behind early on. Sol Campbell's goal in the 37th minute gave them the lead which they then held for almost half the game. Taking one for the team - Lehmann getting himself sent off to prevent a near-certain goal - nearly worked. Not quite; Barcelona outplayed Arsenal for most of the second half and in the end the superior fitness of 11 men playing against 10 told.

Nevertheless, the distinct possibility remains that Lehmann's professional foul could have counted in Arsenal's favour, and seen them walk home with a piece of silverware they had no right to claim. In short, the rules of the game need amending to make sure that blatant cheating is not rewarded.

In rugby, a deliberate foul that prevents a try can be punished by a penalty try - the awarding of five points, plus the chance to take a conversion kick from directly in front of the posts (ie the two bonus points are almost guaranteed, too). That way, things such as the temptation to trip someone up when a player is beaten, or the deliberate dropping of a maul that is moving too quickly to be stopped before it reaches the try-line are penalised not just through punishing the player responsible, but positively rewarding the team that had reached that position.

Should Barcelona have been denied a goal last night as a result of Lehmann's foul? Of course not; it was cynical, and Arsenal deserved to be punished by playing a man down. Football is not won and lost purely by the number of players on the field at the end of 90 minutes, however. Goals, ultimately, are the vital currency in the game. And if the undeniable skill of one team is denied by the foul play and cheating of another, then they should be rewarded with a goal. In practice, as in rugby, a penalty goal would be awarded infrequently indeed - it should only be used for a blatant foul like that of Lehmann's, or for a deliberate handball to block a goal.

In both the cases outlined above, only the illegal intervention of another player prevented a goal. Imagine if Lehmann's foul had been committed in the 89th, rather than the 19th minute - thus clearly depriving Barcelona of a rightful victory. The red card given to Lehmann wouldn't be much of a consolation then. Cheating should not get a reward; the only way to stop this is to allow the awarding of a goal when, in the referee's opinion, the intervention stopped a certain score. For an hour last night, Jens Lehmann looked a tactical genius. That to do so required a cynical foul is not right.