Dirty tricks all part of the beautiful game
MADRID, Feb 24 (Reuters) There was plenty of mud slinging going on at Stamford Bridge this week and it was not just because of the atrocious state of the pitch.
Before and after the Champions League match between Barcelona and Chelsea, the two sides were busy exchanging accusations about alleged dirty tricks.
Barca players suggested Chelsea had deliberately allowed the surface to deteriorate in order to hinder their trademark passing game.
Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho said Argentine teenager Lionel Messi had used a theatrical roll to engineer the sending off of Chelsea left back Asier del Horno.
Neatly overlooking the fact that the defender had also been writhing around in agony in an attempt to avoid a booking, Mourinho said the decision to dismiss Del Horno had tainted the ''purity of the game''.
It is easy to rail against declining standards of sportsmanship in football and hark back to the ''good old days'' when it was a hard but honourable game.
Neatly choreographed dives, exaggerated suffering, pressurising of officials and a host of other underhand tactics happen at almost every top level match.
But this sort of behaviour is merely the present manifestation of the sort of gamesmanship that has always gone on.
The history Football is littered with stories of players trying to get one over their opponents by fair means or foul.
BRUTAL TACTICS The only difference is that some of the more brutal techniques that were once used against skilful players in the 1950s and 60s have been eliminated from the game and replaced by some adroit play-acting.
A quick glance at some of the most controversial incidents shows it has always been difficult to draw a clear line between what is legitimate playing for advantage and what is downright cheating.
No self-respecting Scot would claim that Joe Jordan should have admitted that it was he and not a Welsh defender who handled the ball when his side were awarded a penalty that secured them qualification for the 1978 World Cup.
Argentine supporters see Maradona's ''hand of god'' goal against England in the 1986 World Cup as evidence of the player's genius but for English fans it is proof that he was a cheat.
Manchester United keeper Roy Carroll would have been thought mad if he had run up to the referee to admit that Pedro Mendes's shot had crossed the line by more than a metre during his side's league match against Spurs last year.
Diving and play-acting are fraught with problems too, not least for the referee.
It may be true that the number of rolls done by a player after he suffers a foul is inversely proportional to the damage done, but it is still no easy task for an official to make a decision on the severity of a challenge.
Strikers have become expert at trailing a foot behind them whenever they get close to a goalkeeper or throwing themselves at defenders when they get into the box and it often takes several television replays to determine whether or not a foul has been committed.
STREET-WISE And what for one set of fans or match commentators is a deliberate attempt to mislead the referee is for others an example of skill and street-wise intelligence.
There are, of course, some clear cut cases such as the time when Chile goalkeeper Roberto Rojas smeared a blood capsule over his face in order try to get a World Cup qualifier against Brazil abandoned in 1989.
Short of using a lie detector, however, the referee's job is often made almost impossible.
Football is not the only offender, either. Misleading match officials is an accepted tactic in most big sports.
Cricketers refuse to walk when they know they are out and claim catches that never hit the bat, tennis players call serves out that they know are in.
Front row rugby forwards drop the scrum near the posts in the hope of winning their side a penalty and even in that supposedly most honourable sport of all, golf, players have been known to give themselves a favourable drop or change their scorecards.
It is, of course, refreshing to see a player turn down the chance to mislead an official or claim an unfair advantage.
Robbie Fowler was rightly praised when he tried to convince the referee that he had not been fouled in the area by Arsenal keeper David Seaman in 1996-97 as was Paolo Di Canio when he refused to take a shot on goal because an opponent was injured.
But these are the honourable exceptions. In reality the more underhand tactics and dirty tricks have always been part of the beautiful game.
REUTERS SC RK1752