Javier Mascherano - Guilty as Charged?

Posted by Red number seven on March 31, 2008, 12:29:23 AM

Liverpool and Argentina’s 23 year old centre midfielder stands accused;

Accused by some of his own side’s supporters of naivety.

Accused by the bandwagon-jumping lynch mob in the English mass media of, variously, cynical ignorance, verbal incontinence and slack-jawed stupidity.

Accused by referee Steve Bennett of dissent and refusal to leave the field of play.

Accused by the Football Association of Improper conduct because of this, and now facing an extension of, we’re told, two games to the automatic one match ban served in today’s Merseyside derby victory.

It is difficult in the midst of a sanctimonious feeding frenzy to maintain some perspective; perhaps the facts would help. Javier Mascherano was sent off for two yellow cards. The first was for a moderately bad challenge, similar to the one Paul Scholes wasn’t booked for early in the same game and arguably not a lot worse than several of the fouls Rio Ferdinand committed and was unpunished for. Certainly not in the same league as the high, studs up leg-breaker that Ashley Cole perpetrated which started all of this.

In other words, it was a reasonable booking.

Later in the half Fernando Torres (victim of the aforementioned ‘treatment’ administered by Rio Ferdinand) decided enough was enough and had the temerity to ask Mr. Bennett why he was failing in his duty of care to, as Mr. Ferdinand’s manager put it so succinctly just two weeks and one agenda earlier, ‘protect skilful players.’ He asked him. He didn’t run over to him waving his fists. He didn’t push his nose in his face. He didn’t appear to swear, rant or even dissent in a prolonged way. He merely and understandably got fed up with the robust approach and requested and explanation as to why there had been no yellow card.

He got his answer – the requested yellow card was brandished, but in his direction.

At this point Mascherano, who had, admittedly, been contesting decisions (not especially aggressively) throughout the half, clearly felt a very keen sense of injustice. He had been booked for a fairly heavy challenge, but when his centre forward asked why the same censure did not apply to the opponents, Torres, rather than the perpetrator of the challenge, was booked; Mascherano’s frustration was obvious and understandable, and he ran over to ask Mr Bennett, and I quote, ‘what’s going on?’ His body language – palms turned upwards, smiling – was questioning, supplicant, sarcastic at absolute worst. His question and tone seemed reasonable. He certainly did not repeat the ugly, contemptuous body language of Ashley Cole, and he certainly was not as disrespectful to the referee as Messrs Ferguson and Queiroz were a mere fortnight earlier.

But, he did question the decision, showing ‘dissent by word or action.’ So, by the letter of the law, he did deserve a yellow, and therefore, a red card.

So why all the fuss?

The reason why Mascherano was affronted by the red card, and many supporters bemused by it is that the ‘letter of the law’ as regards to the dissent rule has never been applied in any team sport. Clearly players of all codes show, ‘by word or action,’ disagreement with refereeing decisions. Every appeal for a throw in or corner, offside shout, raising of the eyebrows, sideways glance should, by the letter of the law, result in a yellow card. All sports clearly have a tacit agreement between officials, players and governing bodies that a level of dissent is tolerable.

In Rugby Union this level is not much at all. In Association football, it is a shed load.

Or it has been.

Javier Mascherano’s level of dissent was not worse than the level of dissent erstwhile England captain John Terry and his regular representative committee of team mates have engaged in, with few cautions, again and again in virtually every game they have played this season. Nowhere near as aggressive as often seen practised and unpunished by Wayne Rooney. Nowhere near as scornful as Ashley Cole turning his back on Mike Riley.

The really interesting thing is that none of the baying hounds of the press appear to disagree with this assessment. They just seem to believe that, since Ashley Cole’s puerile disdain for authority everyone realised that ‘things are different now.’

No rule change or directive, you understand. No communiqué from the FA Premier League to suggest that the tacit level of acceptable dissent had been changed. No letter from the chair of the Professional Game Match Officials Board. No Phone call, fax, official announcement. Crucially no official sanction for Ashley Cole. Just a vague ‘respect’ campaign and a lot of coverage in the mass media, especially Sky Sports News.

Apparently Mascherano ‘should have realized’ that there had the kind of ‘change of climate’ that gets Al Gore animated enough to make dull movies.

And clearly they were right. The media does indeed drive and communicate the agenda rather than the Football Association and it is at liberty to decide which are the important issues facing football at any particular time.

This perhaps explains the apparent and somewhat troubling inconsistencies like, for example, protection of skilful players from physical treatment (players like Christiano Ronaldo or, oh I don’t know, Jose Reyes) is most important one week, but why an unprotected skilful player’s frustration is disgraceful a couple of weeks later. It explains why ‘simulation’ was, not too long ago, the most pernicious evil facing humanity and a continental scourge on a par with rabies, yet can now be waved on by a referee who is subsequently lauded as a hero for dealing with dissent.

It explains why the FA and the referees it employs are inexplicably inconsistent, and why certain clubs and managers seem to be treated better than others by officials and official bodies. The media matters far too much and some people are better at manipulating it to suit their purposes.

So before I answer the question of whether I believe the Liverpool midfielder to be guilty I feel there are more eminent people who should stand accused.

Mr. Ferguson is guilty of rank hypocrisy for demanding protection for his skilful players then employing a more than robust approach to Liverpool’s. In fairness, though, he’s just doing his job to the best of his ability, unlike the other parties I accuse.

Steve Bennett is guilty of narcissism. I say that because I believe the motivation for making such a momentous and controversial decision was not a desire to alter, in the long term, the level of tolerable dissent, or to increase the respect for match officials – if I believed that I would applaud him. If he continues to consistently punish that level of dissent, if, when the 'respect' wind stops blowing, he has the courage to send off a John Terry or a Wayne Rooney in similar circumstances, I will change my mind. I just don’t think he will. I believe he sniffed this week’s zeitgeist and wanted to be publicly lionized as the man who stood up to the horrible, greedy, spoilt, disrespectful little children that the media tell us footballers are. When a referee is more bothered about his own image than fairness or consistency he becomes a liability. Bennett, to me, is just such a referee.

Worst of all, though, are the FA. They are guilty of spinelessness for failing to provide any sort of leadership and allowing themselves to be dictated to by the media. It has been patently obvious that dissent has been an issue in football for many years. Manchester United themselves have a long history of very aggressive dissent, although in more recent years have been eclipsed by other clubs. Chelsea’s level of dissent, and, in particular, Terry and Cole’s, has, this season alone, led to at least two referees being bullied into poor decisions and subsequent suspensions (Rob Styles and Mike Riley). They have also had at least two club fines for failing to control their players (These fines were always going to be very effective; apparently their multi-billionaire owner was irate with his playing staff as he had set aside the fine money for the redecoration of the guest bedroom on his third yacht)

Having repeatedly failed to attempt to deal with this obvious problem in the game, and, despite ample opportunity, refusing to effectively sanction the worst offenders, the FA have jumped on a media bandwagon and chosen to make an example of a young, foreign player and a club with no track record of this sort of behaviour. This is cowardice, abdication of responsibility and scapegoating of the worst kind.

So is Javier Mascherano guilty of dissent and improper conduct? Yes, this week, maybe next. Definitely not two weeks ago and probably not in two weeks time.

Naivety, stupidity, madness? Undoubtedly. Not because he didn’t understand the mood of the media, because, quite frankly, without an official communication, he shouldn’t have to. No, he was foolish to think he would be treated even-handedly by that ref, on that ground, with that FA.

Guilty as charged.

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