FIRST let us make clear that the referee had to give a penalty. In real time and from where he was stood well away from play the decision looked a stonewall one: Ronaldo cut inside and Woodgate stuck out a foot. There was contact and the man with the spring loaded spine went PING! Game over. That he himself scored the spot-kick just rubbed salt in the wound.
In the post-mortem the certainty evaporated. Woodgate clearly stetched to tackle but then pulled out short and planted his studs firmly in the turf, presumably to block any attempted cross. The contact when it came was initiated by Ronaldo as the penalty box artiste sensed the golden opportunity and cut across to tumble over the defender’s knee in dramatic fashion. It was a master class in chance taking and forcing the referee’s hand.
But the reaction to it was maddening, and saddening. There is an unconscious dark alliance of managers, officials and pundits within the game who conspire to justify this creative approach to the exploitation of the rules, who have made institutional cheating an integral part of the game: diving, dissent, feigning injury, pushing, pulling and claiming throws after you have personally put out the ball out. Those who take a living from the game do not realise and do not care about the gravity of the insult to the paying public when they turn a blind eye to this cancerous trend.
Boro fans will be fuming today and feeling cheated. Once again the under-dog gets a raw deal in a game against the big boys. For Boro it is a third time this season that the treble-chasers have needed a contentious penalty decision to deny them a result and that has got to hurt.
Back in December when Ronaldo tumbled in anticipation of a challenge that never arrived, red faced Sir Alex fumed with indignation at the very thought that Boro could complain about the acrobatics. It was a pre-emptive move to avoid the tackle and not a dive he said. The key was that there was “intent” he insisted, falling in mitigation onto an unknowable abstract concept that the Victorians who framed the rules had indeed made central to the notion of foul play. However his noble philosphical position on individual choice and consciousness was undermined when he threw in the line that Gareth Southgate was “naive” to complain about it. The message was simple: “Get with the programme, everyone does it.”
And indeed everyone does. Boro got a helping foot towards the UEFA Cup final last term as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink left his trailing leg there to be clipped and won a vital penalty against Roma. Yakubu goes down very easily for such a big lad too. And don’t even start about John Hendrie and his allergic reaction to the 18 yard line. All professional footballers seek to gain every advantage whenever possible no matter what shirt they wear. Let us not think Boro are squeaky clean. All clubs are complicit in it.
The view of fans is diametrically opposed to that of players on this issue. The supporters’ position was illustrated by the first caller on Century after the game: Ronaldo is a cheat who conned England in the World Cup and shouldn’t be even be playing in this country. It was reinforced on the message boards too: Morrison should have broken the cheating get’s legs… an extreme enraged sentiment that has been echoed at almost every club side this term as dodgy decisions followed in the anti-hero’s wake.
But that is miles away from the view of the former players turned pundits. Bernie Slaven told that first caller that he should admire Ronaldo and that, as a former striker, the ‘Living Legend’ would have done exactly the same. “I would cheat my granny to get a penalty and go down in the box,” he admitted with admirable honesty.
Meanwhile Alan Shearer said more or less the same on BBC’s red button highlights and analysis show. “He’s very clever,” said the son of a sheet metal worker. “He looked for it but you can’t blame him for that.”
And to make it a hat-trick the smarmy Amazing Portuguese Falling Over Man himself popped up soon after to grin his way through an interview in which he pointed out: “Of course it was a penalty. He touched me and I lost my equilibrium and I went down.”
That assumes of course that contact is in itself an offence. It isn’t. Football is a contact sport and legitimate attempts to win the ball are allowed, even if as a result the opponent is sent sprawling, an even if that is in the box. The key, as Sir Alex pointed out, is “intent” and while it is clear that Woodgate did not intend to foul Ronaldo – he appears to pull out specifically to avoid doing so – it certainly seemed to Bernie, Shearer and the rest that Ronaldo did intend to “buy” the decision. So where’s the offence there?
Sadly, the people who are employed to determine intent and prevent the systematic manipulation of the rules are woefully inadequate. Take Jasper Carrot-alike Mike Dean. He was supposedly in charge of the game but appeared totally incapable of making the clearest of decisions. I won’t blame him for the penalty because he has been sold a dummy by a master and it looked clear cut. And I won’t blame him for sending off James Morrison because it was a ludicrous rash challenge born of frustration that, with Lee Cattermole banned for the next two games, will leave the team with a big problem on the right.
But what are we to make of Dean’s failure to take action against Wayne Rooney? Already booked for mouthing off, the spud faced Scouser charged 20 yards to confront George Boateng with his hands up. As we know, the fortune cookie pundit world view is that “if you raise your hands you’re off.” Result: George booked for his part in the handbags and Rooney escapes scot free. Then, after the Morrison lunge, Rooney dived in angrily to grab Mozza by the neck right in front of the referee. Again no booking. That was followed by a four letter tirade at Dean which was again ignored. What does he have to do to get sent off?
How can the game possibly regain any sense of integrity, natural justice or discipline when officials are openly ignoring such flagrant disregard for the laws of the game and their own authority? That Rooney – a serial swearee with borderline Tourettes – was not pedalled sends out a powerful message that some players are beyond the law.
And the media are also culpable. There will be no inquest on Sky about Ronaldo’s systematic deception. The tabliods will not rush to defend the honour of the beautiful game. Instead it will be gushing, sycophantic praise for United, Chelsea and Arsenal and a bandwagon rolling to get the stepover king named as Player of the Year. And the players – even the ones who have been victims of the full range of his talents – will vote for him because they recognise that he is brilliant “at what he does”. And because they aspire to do the same.
FABIO Rochemback will have burnt his bridges with a lot of fans as he greeted the whistle with a big smiley cuddle and laugh with arch-villian Ronaldo. They may well be fellow Portuguese speakers with a lot of mutual friends and, who knows, they may be on MSN to each other twice a day but there is a time and place for such a love in – and it is not on the pitch with the supporters angry and hurt and barely two minutes after a big flare-up.
But it is not just the post-match fraternisation that will have annoyed. The midfield heavyweight came on as a substitute looking like he had spent his time away moonlighting as a parmo taster and promtly gave away a dangerous free-kick with a needless handball. It wasn’t the only one he conceded either , and most in dangerous positions because although he was presumably thrown on to try and get a goal he rarely crossed the half-way line.
It is hard to see how he has a future at the club. He has undoubted talent but physically he is not up to the challenge, his fancy flicks cause more problems for Boro than the opposition and his attitude leaves a lot to be desired. We spent January with his father/agent trying to engineer a move back to Sporting and questioning the Boro players attitide after defeats, yet tonight he was the one who looked like he didn’t care.
THE PENDULUM has just swung against Boro in their bid to keep Jonathan Woodgate. He has been honest in his assement of the situation all along and has made it clear he still has big ambitions and he wants to win things and play on the biggest stage.
The best thing Boro could do to persuade him he could realise those ambitions at the Riverside was to get to the FA Cup final and even if they lost barge into the UEFA Cup through the back door. A semi-final with Watford and beyond that a dream date at Wembley for the proud local ald beckoned. Not making it through has been a massive set-back.
Now the club must ensure they set about bringing in some good players early in the Summer to show their too have ambitions and to give him reason to believe that staying at Boro would not be another year or two lost from a career that has promised much but as yet delivered little.
And it is not just Woodgate that must be persuaded. Keeping the defensive linchpin could be a factor in making sure Mark Viduka and others stay and attracting new quality players in. We must hope for a good finish to the season to offer hope for the future.
I AM sick as a chip. We have missed our chance again. Well, that’s another season over.