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Monday, Nov. 3, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Punishment for Arsenal players doesn't fit the crime


LONDON -- These are not the best of times for English football.

Christopher Davies

In fact, football has almost taken a back seat in recent weeks with stories of alleged rape and sexual assault involving Premiership players, Rio Ferdinand failing to take a drug test, while on Tuesday a man was arrested for racially abusing proud dad Ian Wright when he cheered his son Shaun Wright-Phillips after scoring for Manchester City against Queens Park Rangers.

Alan Smith, the Leeds striker, threw a bottle back into the crowd during the League Cup tie against Manchester United, hitting a woman on the head, just hours after the club announced an English football record loss of £49.5 million.

The financial insanity at Elland Road included paying £10,000 of Robbie Fowler's weekly wage at Manchester City (the same Robbie Fowler who joined Leeds from Liverpool for £11 million and moved to City for £6 million 14 months later), plus funding a £200,000 loyalty bonus to Robbie Keane (the same Robbie Keane who joined Leeds for £12 million from Inter Milan and was sold to Spurs for £7 million 15 months later).

Compensation payments totaling £5.7 million were made, mainly to former managers David O'Leary and Terry Venables.

On Thursday, the Football Association and Arsenal were in the dock for the misbehavior of various players.

UEFA was expected to hand the F.A. a nominal fine for the England players' part in the halftime tunnel fracas during the Euro 2004 tie in Turkey on Oct. 11.

The Highbury Five -- Martin Keown and Lauren (violent conduct) plus Patrick Vieira, Ray Parlour and Ashley Cole (improper behavior) had pleaded guilty to their charges which followed scenes at the end of the match at Manchester United on Sept. 21, and were handed a combination of suspensions and fines for their sins. Arsenal has been bracing for a significant fine for failing to control its players.

The F.A. charged the Arsenal players mainly for the goading of United's Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had missed a last-minute penalty in the 0-0 draw, and it was unpleasant to see the Dutchman's fellow professionals delighting in his misery.

UEFA decided not to charge any individual England players for the tunnel trouble, preferring to charge the F.A. for failing to control its players -- the charge the F.A. leveled at Arsenal.

The video showed England players acting aggressively if not throwing any punches but then no punches were thrown at Old Trafford, just an outbreak of pushing and shoving.

That didn't stop the F.A. from charging five Arsenal players, the club plus Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo -- the United pair's cases have yet to go before a disciplinary commission.

It is difficult not to believe that had Arsenal and United players been involved in the sort of tunnel melee England was, the F.A. would not have handed out a charge or four to various individuals.

Peter Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, called his players' actions "stupid" and he was spot on. To that you can add unprofessional, childish and petulant. Certainly improper conduct.

But violent? No.

Had Keown and Lauren acted as they did immediately after the penalty miss, would referee Steve Bennett have shown them the red card for violent conduct? Unlikely, to say the least.

What all the players did was surely only unsporting, which is effectively a yellow card offense.

For all the in-your-face antics of the Arsenal players and the pushing and shoving after the final whistle, there was not a single act that could, beyond reasonable doubt, be construed as violent.

Arsenal deserves its charge of failing to ensure proper behavior of its players and if the F.A. Cup winner was fined £200,000 there will be few complaints outside of Highbury.

United, too, should have been charged rather than the players of both clubs.

Is it worth clogging up the F.A.'s antiquated, over-worked disciplinary system, where some cases take six or seven months to be heard, for what were non-red card offenses?

Arsene Wenger too often defends the indefensible, but the manager has a valid point when he says the football authorities should direct their energies toward punishing those players who can cause serious harm to opponents, rather than the admittedly unpalatable but essentially non-violent goings on at Old Trafford.

Charge the clubs but don't haul players before commissions for what were only bookable offenses.

Pierluigi Collina was praised from the rooftops for the way he handled Turkey vs. England.

While the Italian's man-management of a potentially volatile situation was excellent, Collina was lenient on Rustu when the Turkish goalkeeper clattered Kieron Dyer, who was fortunate to escape unscathed, though the referee saw it as unsporting behavior rather than violent conduct.

The authorities are powerless to intervene once a referee has taken action, but it is crucial officials differentiate between a careless and a reckless challenge -- and be brave enough to punish correctly.

As with most decisions violent conduct is subjective. A referee must ask himself whether the safety of the opponent is endangered or whether the player making the tackle had control over its outcome.

If the perpetrators put their opponents' safety in danger or their challenges are too reckless and fast to be controlled, then the red card should be produced.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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