Norwich's Leroy Fer caused widespread controversy on Saturday when he opted to roll the ball into Cardiff's unguarded net with an unsuspecting David Marshall out of position rather than return the ball to his opponents, who had kicked the ball out of play so his teammate could receive treatment for an injury. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensued.
A melee flared up with Cardiff players absolutely furious the Dutchman had repaid their moment of charity with a kick in the teeth. However, while it's good sportsmanship to put the ball out if your opponent is in need of medical attention, and it definitely goes down as bad form not to repay the favour, technically it's not illegal, so what's all the fuss about exactly? Well, apart from all of the foul language, blatant cheating and flashes of racism, footballers and their fans are a moral lot.
It is somewhat ironic that players have bent and twisted every rule beyond recognition (you only have to look at the common refusal to place the ball in the right position when taking a corner, or clearly trying to gain extra inches by shuffling forward once 10 yards has been counted out by the referee), but we still expect them to be morally gracious in cases such as this and obey the age old gentleman's agreement.
Fer was refreshingly honest in his post match interview about the events at Carrow Road, albeit on an ugly subject matter, by declaring he was trying to score because he wanted to win the game. In theory, the goal should have stood, but referee Mike Jones showed the common sense that was needed and went against the letter of the law to adhere to the spirit of the game.
This is not the first time that a foreigner has failed to adhere to our very British attitude towards fair play. The most notable players to commit the perceived cardinal sin were Arsenal's Nwankwo Kanu and Marc Overmars back in 1999, when the pair combined to score against Sheffield United in a very similar situation during an FA Cup tie.
Unfortunately, English players have also been willing to turn their back on the conventions of sportsmanship that are engrained into our youngsters from an early age. A Carling Cup tie turned sour in August when Yeovil's Byron Webster failed to return the possession and gave his side the lead against Birmingham before Gary Johnson bizarrely ordered his team to allow their Midlands rivals to claim an uncontested goal later in the game.
The winds of change have blown, although not on the scale of St Jude's, and a shift in attitude has taken place. Players have grown tired of others using the rules unfairly to gain an advantage. On the night at Yeovil's Huish Park, it was Colin Doyle, the Birmingham goalkeeper, that decided the ball should be put out of play because his colleague was injured. But Yeovil, obviously disagreeing with the level of injury, chose to capitalise. Players can no longer rely on the good nature of others. It was Doyle's prerogative to put it out, but that doesn't guarantee the ball will be returned to him if his opponent disputes the injury.
But in Saturday's case, a Norwich player was injured and Cardiff put the ball out - to ignore their olive branch was just not cricket. Fer has proved that the lines are more blurred elsewhere on the continent, although the etiquette and tradition is established in the Premier League. But that's what it is - tradition - and it won't last forever. Just because excited children woke up to oranges in their stockings in the past doesn't mean the majority still do. Football has changed dramatically in recent years and with gamesmanship and borderline cheating taking place in other areas of the game, why should you be inclined to concede possession when your opponent has only kicked the ball out to waste time and give themselves a breather? This polite gesture may well die a death in the near future.
Putting the ball out so a player that is in real need of medical attention from the physio is one thing, but wasting an attacking opportunity of your own so an opponent, whose team are hanging onto a slender advantage late in the game, can feign cramp is another. Even in an instance when the ball is played out, the controversy can continue. Arguments whether to give the ball back are few, but where the ball is given back is another sticking point. Thanks, our star striker is ready to play on now, but you can have the ball back at your keeper's feet and not in our attacking third is the attitude more frequently taken.
By the letter of the law the referee should stop the game if there is a head injury, otherwise it's down to the players, which is a risky business. If someone goes down injured then the ball is in your court - use it to your advantage and continue to play with an extra man or do the admirable thing and put the ball into touch. You can have few complaints if your team has put in nasty challenges all day long and the opposition decide to carry on regardless. In the heat of battle quick decisions are made about the situation and increasingly, a passage of play that has preceded it. So when players are furious that a free kick has been taken from an incorrect position or yards have been stolen during a throw in, they will be trying to gain the exact same advantage themselves just seconds later.
After the recent events of Samuel Eto'o unfairly nicking the ball off Marshall and now Fer's attempt to notch an unfair winner, don't expect Mackay's men to be giving other teams much respect when the shoe is on the other foot in the future. What we don't want is a situation in which every single time a player goes down the ball is put out. If a midfielder takes a knock and the challenge was fair but it takes him a minute to run it off, that is part of the game. Even possible solutions could lead to problems - a referee that is told to halt play every time a player went down would lead to stop start spectacles. Incidents will continue to occur due to the interpretation of an event or phase of play, so we may as well add it to the list of debates that will rage on and on.
With the decision to continue or stop play resting at the feet of the players, whose moral compasses are prone to skew without warning, the controversy will continue. That's the trouble with playing to an 'unwritten rule', we can't throw the book at an offender when they are unable to be punished within the black and white realms of the rulebook.
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