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Opinion

Give us back football's soul: Why FIFA must listen to World Cup's bandwagon fans and end this joy-sucking disaster

1st August, 2023
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1st August, 2023
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It is, if you really drill down, an addiction. One that has brought a share of pleasure but plenty more pain over the past 50 years. A job as a sportswriter for the majority of that time has helped enable it, no doubt.

A coach, club volunteer, qualified referee, a player (many years after I should have packed it in), a writer on the game and a fan… In the last week I’ve watched Arsenal vs Barcelona on a dodgy stream, a game of under 10s, my partner playing as a goalie for the first time for our local club, put on the gloves in a dismal 2-0 over 45s defeat, and enjoyed five full games of the Women’s World Cup.

So, as an addict, I thought I’d seen football from every angle there is to see it. And then the Matildas faced a must-win contest against Canada and outsiders, non-addicts, people with actual real lives and other interests, started to invade our space.

From every side came opinions and insights never previously considered. Tell me I’m not alone here? It feels like you’re a member of a tight knit coastal village and then the school holiday tourists come piling into town, yapping away in your now-crowded IGA complaining about the traffic and inferior cheese options.

It used to be once every four years that football fans were joined for a few hectic weeks by fans of other codes, checking in to give their national team some support, while letting us know exactly why football is flawed and full of deceit and just plain wrong. The rise of the Matildas, to join the Socceroos in the national consciousness has added to our burden, and sometimes it’s hard to share.

Yes the old tropes of diving, and time wasting, and low scoring have been there as ever, but this time – no doubt because the Matildas are so darn wholesome – there is a sense of the outsiders trying especially hard to understand, and care.

An old AAP sportswriting colleague was behind the goal when Colombia beat Germany in that incredible match in Sydney. He, like Malcolm Knox at the Sydney Morning Herald, was swept up in the occasion and drama, but still managed to point out all of the sport’s apparent flaws.

The Colombians jeering the Germans for … just being the opposition? “Disgraceful”. He was incensed the Colombian keeper only got a yellow for fouling the German striker ahead of the penalty (and no amount of “I’m a ref and it’s a right decision” would sway him from this opinion).

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Colombia’s Linda Caicedo. (Photo by Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

And he couldn’t get his head around the fact that there are limited big screen replays, the game stops for substitutions and the Colombian winner came after 6:20 of six minutes of time added on. “It’s a minimum,” I offered to deaf ears.

“Someone dressed like a referee stands on the sideline and holds up a neon sign showing how much more time is to be played. This is known as stoppage time. For when play is stopped due to injury (rarely), faked injury (regularly), and possibly some other occasions when nothing is happening (a lot of the time!),” he wrote on Facebook.

It would be wrong to suggest that he hated his experience – just aspects of it that those of us who are deep in the football wormhole accept as a price of our addiction.

“Putting aside all my disdain for soccer’s unnecessary anachronisms and histrionics, this was a fantastic night of sporting theatre and community celebration.

“If FIFA are taking any notice they’ll give us a men’s World Cup very soon.”

The Matildas game brought up questions. So many questions.

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My ex shot me a text wanting to know if Mary Fowler was wearing gloves to protect her fingernails. I didn’t know the answer but felt maybe it had more to do with playing football in Melbourne in winter.

A buddy wanted to know if the arm counts when deciding on offsides. No, “only parts you can score with”, which took the conversation off in another less savoury direction.

A writer at The Roar, who does an excellent job on another sport – Let’s call him Disty Chroran and the sport Ugby Runion – WhatsApped more me times in the 90 minutes than he does after an Eddie Jones press conference.

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

“How’s that onside?” “Well, the player in the middle was playing her onside.”

“How’s that offside?” “Well, her foot’s offside, and that’s the law.”

“WTF, no way that’s a penalty!” “Well, she stood on Gorry’s foot and that’s a foul.”

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Imagine that – an Ugby Runion writer blowing up about too much whistling from the ref and TMO intervention!

On Twitter, a political writer from the Guardian Australia decided that the offside law should be dispensed with completely.

“I’m glad that was a goal but, can we just abolish the offside rule already? Punishing players for being in the right place at the right time. Stupid rule. Free it up,” said AFL fan Paul Karp to his 45k Twitter followers. I shared my exasperation to my 300 followers, but it seems more people care what a political junkie thinks than a football addict.

But if football fans are from Mars and the other Australians are from Venus, there is least one place where we find common ground – it’s time to shoot VAR into the f—ing sun.

Paul Karp is wrong. It’s not the offside law that needs changing. And we don’t need to go back and let a TV ref tell us that very soft touch on Gorry that the referee deemed in real time was ok should be pulled back for a 90 percent goal chance.

Over the past five years or so we addicts have come resigned to VAR, acknowledged begrudgingly that it’s here to stay, like rising rents and ads for Hungry Jacks. We’ve been duped and it’s taken a new cohort of fans to shake us up and say WTF?

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It’s almost like we had just about forgotten just how VAR sucks the joy and wild abandon out of the game and the experience, to replace it with a flawed system that gets most decisions right but has gotten the sport so wrong.

Watching the Matildas made me long for a not so distant time when the ball would go in the net, the assistant’s flag stayed down and we had permission to go freaking mental. It’s not like that now, and it never will be again while this blight stays in the game.

Sepp Blatter was one of the worst sports administrators to walk the planet when in charge of FIFA, and he came up with plenty of outlandish statements – it’s a mere 19 years since this doozy: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball.

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men.”

But Blatter was anti-technology – at least at first before flipping – believing that the arguments around decisions was what fuelled interest in the game.

VAR hasn’t removed the arguments, but it has taken away too much of the sport’s soul. They obviously won’t, but FIFA should take heed of the newbie fans texting WTF to their football-loving mates and lean in to the clarity of uneducated minds.

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Except what Paul Karp says. Fire that bloke into the sun too.

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