I didn’t really care who won Wednesday night’s game between Tottenham and Young Boys, so I am writing this as objectively as I can.
But that second goal, a Jermaine Defoe beauty which may have been the turning point of the tie, really bothered me.
Yes, it was a clear handball by Defoe and should not have stood. But that isn’t what’s bothering me. And there are enough people ranting about his cheating already, you don’t need to read another article about that.
No, what bothered me was something the defender who was marking him did.
Bale clipped the ball in, Defoe knocked it down with his hand, and at that moment Anmar Jemal turned away from the Spurs forward to look at the referee and complain.
It was only a second, but in that second Defoe managed to take the ball away and into enough free space so that he was able to lash a glorious strike past the Young Boys goalkeeper. It was 2-0, and arguably game over.
Now I’m not a professional football player, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. But I find it extraordinary that a player can be so easily distracted by something that hasn’t even happened yet. Either the referee thinks it’s a handball or he doesn’t—wait for him to call it.
They used to call it "playing until the whistle."
When I used to play football (before beer, laziness, and lack of talent wrecked my dreams of going pro), if a decision wasn’t picked up by the referee I didn’t stand around staring at him hoping he’d feel sorry for me and blow the whistle. I might have screamed obscenities, but I’d stay focused on the action on the pitch while I did it.
Complaining and whining wasn’t acceptable on an amateur village football pitch, so why is it acceptable on the largest stage of all?
This isn’t meant as a personal attack on Jemal. By no means is he the only player to do this. There are plenty of more extreme examples of this happening every week—I just picked up on this example because it is fresh in my mind.
The main crux of this article is to complain about players’ natural instincts that are becoming sneakier as the years go by.
Natural instincts normally mean knowing where the ball will drop, predicting which way a dribbler will turn, being in the right place at the right time, and similar occurrences. Unfortunately, complaining to the ref is as natural as diving to the modern day footballer.
Yes, an athlete will always have mental lapses throughout his career. But to do it because your instant reaction is to complain to a referee rather than get the ball is a horrible indictment of the very instincts you are paid a lot of money for.
Much like a defender has certain natural instincts of how to clear a corner, or a striker has a natural instinct of how to poach a goal, these are traits you may not necessarily be able to learn. You are born with them or you’re not.
So do coaches not even notice these kinds of mental errors? Or do they just not care?
Obviously most coaches, as painful as this is to admit, are rarely going to castigate their players for diving when it invariably leads to a free kick or penalty.
But when players are instinctively staying on the ground and looking at the referee instead of finishing up the play—playing to the whistle—then that is a cause for concern.
Like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t meant as an attack on Anwar Jemal. I’m sure Young Boys would have lost just fine despite the Defoe goal, even if at the time it did seem decisive.
It is just incredibly frustrating for me that this defensive lapse is endemic of modern day footballers.
It reminds me of Fabien Barthez’s infamous error against West Ham in 2001.
Convinced Paulo Di Canio was offside (or at least, trying to convince the referee it was offside), the Man United goalkeeper rashly left his position to complain and Di Canio easily scored, knocking Man United out of the FA Cup.
And how often do we see a guy like Ronaldo stay on the ground after a challenge and complain to the referee instead of getting up to win the ball back? Whether it was a dive or an actual foul is irrelevant, but to stay down on the ground until you hear the whistle and let down your team mates is disgraceful.
It may only be a second that you waste, but that second can be vital—just like it was for Jemal against Tottenham the other night.