Football needs to copy rugby and put its sinners in the bin - but imagine the Celtic-Rangers scenario
The Celtic players think the Rangers man dived. They crowd round the referee. But Callum McGregor’s protest goes too far and for the skipper’s dissent, and having adjudged the defender to have committed a cynical foul, the official sends both to the sin bin.
From the free-kick Rangers score and hold out for the victory and the title.
Immediately, their delirious fans rework a favourite song: “Oh the blue cards are blue … ” The season has its defining image: McGregor and Carter-Vickers trudging from the park, historic first victims of football’s newest punishment in Scotland. The Ibrox shop slap said image on a T-shirt which outsells the “Helicopter Sunday” taunt from 2004/05. The tabloid back pages have their headlines: “Blue hoo! … Blue murder! … Blue don’t know what you’re doing!” And it all gets too much for Celtic who warn that if the card colour isn’t changed for the following season they won’t be back.
Too far-fetched? Too insane? This is Scottish football we’re talking about. And there can be no doubt that the blue card, if it’s ever introduced, would cause controversy. We’ve nowhere near got to grips with VAR and surely the last thing refs need is additional armoury which will only cause more confusion and a load of extra grief.
Almost as soon as the idea was floated it was slipped back inside a file. Not itself sin-binned and not completely ditched, but put away for the time being following a backlash from pundits and fans. There might have been better weeks for it to emerge, one where VAR wasn’t hogging the back pages, although when is that never the case?
England’s Premier League revealed they were pushing for VAR reform after conceding that checks are taking too long and supporters are being angered by dubiety and delay. Twenty-four hours after outlining their frustrations with the law-makers at the International Football Association Board, the latter were proposing: “Pick a card, any card … ”
Officials are already under huge pressure without having to choose between three instead of two. And yet if the blue card could possibly be discussed in a calmer environment, doesn’t it have some merit?
How many times have you watched a cynical foul being perpetrated in the full knowledge it will not result in a sending off? They’re the type granted grimly euphemistic description by the ex-pro on co-commentator duties. Oh, that was a “professional foul”. And the yellow card was him “taking one for the team”. But the offender’s motivation for committing the infringement was entirely based round the fact that a booking, and only a booking, would be the consequence. What if he was going to handicap that team he so selflessly cares so much about by being sentenced to spending ten minutes off the field, picking his nose?
I think it would change a player’s mind about risking such sleekitness and skulduggery. Look at the effect of sin bins in rugby and how the guilty can pay. On the Six Nations’ opening weekend, Scotland lost two men to the bin in rapid succession against Wales and in their reduced state a handsome lead was almost overhauled.
The bins could curb dissent, too, but what about making it open house for all chancers and cheats? The divers and Dying Swan impersonators – those trying to win penalties and free-kicks within handy range of goal or simply to run down the clock – might think twice were the ruses to be rumbled and temporary banishment the result. It could, I guess, get quite busy in the bins, with actual construction required. Or what about the SPFL making the Scottish Government a decent offer for those bulky containers still sat inactive outside supermarkets for the shambolic Deposit Return Scheme? Just a thought …
Football prides itself, rightly, on being fast and free-flowing with far fewer of rugby’s stoppages and its purists and snobs would probably balk at the round ball game adopting anything from what they view as the lesser sport. But there’s something else rugby does better than football and it’s being bold enough to have explanations of decisions relayed to fans – audio and visual.
In the aftermath of VAR’s biggest bungle of 2023 – Luis Diaz’s wrongly disallowed goal at Tottenham Hotspur – the f-word flew in the recording of the adjudication demanded by Liverpool and it was reckoned that football dialogue would be too industrial for regular broadcast, especially in the current mimsyish climate of telly commentators being required to apologise when the slightest swearing is picked up from the pitch or stands. But the EPL are in no doubt that football in the age of VAR must clarify and elucidate, despite resistance from the IFAB. “They’re very clear at the moment that we cannot use the audio,” says chief football officer Tony Scholes. “My view is we’re on a journey, that will come, and we’ll get to a stage where both audio and video are played live.”
Meanwhile, football continues to wrestle with technology. It’s like a crummy sci-fi B-movie with the spaceship crew at the mercy of a haywire robot. Not the moment, then, to equip referees with a new card, forcing them to grapple with a three-sided conundrum – yellow, red or blue? – while VAR continues to hinder rather than help. Even though the powers are enticing.
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