LONDON – Which is worse — being sworn at or being hit?
Being called an obscenity or off work for a few weeks as a result of an injury sustained?
Silly question on the face of it and the law in most countries would consider violence of the fist, elbow or foot more serious than violence of the tongue.
Not football, though, and the sport finds itself at a disciplinary crossroads after Lionel Messi was handed a four-match suspension by FIFA for using abusive language to an assistant referee during Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile.
In England, the Football Association’s standard sanction for such an offense would be two games. Violent conduct, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s elbow in the face of Tyrone Mings, is three matches.
However, FIFA seems to consider words are worse than brutality. At the 2014 World Cup Greece coach Fernando Santos was banned for eight international games for verbally abusing match officials during the game against Costa Rica.
However, Portugal’s Pepe was given a one-match ban for head-butting Thomas Muller of Germany, the same punishment as Ante Rebic of Croatia was handed for a studs-up tackle against Mexico and Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio for a potential leg-breaker on Carlos Pena of Uruguay. At club level in most countries a red card for serious foul play or violent conduct is punished by a three-game suspension. FIFA takes a more lenient view on over-the-top challenges,yet comes down like a ton of bricks on swearing.
Messi’s assertion that “my sayings were never addressed to the assistant, they were said to the air” is football’s equivalent of “I didn’t know the gun was loaded,” but FIFA’s decision to suspend the Argentina captain goes against the football laws they help to implement. Dewson Silva, the Brazilian assistant, took no action at the time so therefore the decision of the active match officials should stand in law.
Yet FIFA now has a new way of gathering evidence — via the media. Silva said: “I only realized he was swearing afterwards on reading the press.” So four days later the match officials, who had not initially offered a complaint to FIFA, revised their report on the strength of what was in the press. Messi deserved to be punished, but legally the way FIFA did it has more holes than a colander.
FIFA has “opened proceedings” against Wales defender Neil Taylor for his horror tackle which left Republic of Ireland captain Seamus Coleman with a double fracture of his right leg that will sideline him until at least October. Taylor’s challenge was no worse than Marchisio’s, but understandably most would judge a red card challenge by the level of injury suffered by the victim.
Having given Messi four games, if the Wales player is not suspended for at least five matches FIFA would have no credibility (which pre-supposes it has any). Finding a satisfactory disciplinary balance is not easy and there will always be comparisons between various incidents and the sanctions given. There should always be a natural sense of justice and it is ridiculous and unjustifiable that in FIFA’s world a studs-up challenge can receive the same one-match ban as someone sent-off for two cautionable offenses such as kicking the ball away and the removal of the shirt celebrating a goal.
The English F.A. is looking at ways to make elbowing an opponent a special case with more than a three-game ban. Intent in such instances is not in law, but on the balance of probability it is easier to conclude whether a player has used an elbow as a weapon of mouth destruction rather than a natural part of jumping for the ball. A clenched fist is always a giveaway.
To ensure consistency and the punishment fitting the crime, FIFA should implement an agreed worldwide punishment table for players sent off. At the moment anyone shown a red card in a FIFA or UEFA competition is automatically suspended for the next competitive game with the respective disciplinary committees decided if further matches should be added.
The laws are the same for every country, so why not disciplinary sanctions? One thing guaranteed to anger supporters is the difference in suspensions handed out for the same offense and FIFA should put in place mandatory suitable sentences for red-card offenses, with exceptions for those considered excessively violent.
Two yellow cards and denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity — one game. Using abusive, offensive or insulting language to a match official — two games. Serious foul play and violent conduct — three games.
But not seven or four matches for abusing a match official or one game for a head-butt.
Race for second place: After a two-week break the battle for second place in the Premier League resumes Saturday. Chelsea’s domination of English football has long since diluted any excitement or doubt about who will win the title, so we are left with trying to drum up enthusiasm for who will finish second, third and fourth.
Best league in the world, remember?
The most intriguing fixture is the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton, and the visitor would move to within three points of its rival with a victory and, if Arsenal loses against Manchester City and Manchester United slips up against West Bromwich, Ronald Koeman’s team will be in fifth place.
Everton has been outstanding this year — it trailed Liverpool by 16 points on Jan. 1 but that has been cut to six on April 1. Its tally of 23 points in 2017 is unsurpassed in the league while it has also scored a league-high 26 goals this year. The Toffees may be the form team, but history favors Liverpool because the Reds have lost only one of the previous 20 derbies in the Premier League. Liverpool also does better when it plays top-10 sides and is unbeaten in 14 such games this season.
Neutrals will be cheering for Crystal Palace when it visits Chelsea because an away win would give the chasing pack just a glimmer of hope that the fat lady can’t start singing.
Sad reality: Television and radio commentators plus the written press were unanimous in their praise for the “impeccably observed minute’s silence” before England’s game against Lithuania in respect of those who died in the Westminster terrorist attack.
It is a sad comment on our society that football spectators should be congratulated for doing something that should be taken for granted.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.