It could be the goal of the season. A bright new star suddenly makes a break and is crossing the halfway line with only a skeleton defence ahead of him.
He has pace to burn and looks unstoppable as he glides past one defender and speeds towards the next. The excitement mounts. There’s a sharp intake of breath as the crowd senses this could decide the game…and then bang, the sense of wonder disappears. Why? Because a cynical defender manages to grab the attacker’s shirt and send him crashing to the ground.
A potentially unforgettable moment becomes instantly forgettable. The magical is reduced to the mundane and the wonderful game of football is diminished.
Shirt pulling may seem minor but apart from injuring someone, it’s the worst offence that can happen on a football pitch. It should be punished by the award of a penalty no matter where it happens on the pitch.
That may seem a bit over the top but consider what shirt pulling entails. It’s a crime against the fans because it destroys the entertainment value of the game.
It isn’t taken seriously enough. All that happens is the ref blows his whistle for a foul and maybe gives the defender a yellow card. So what? The defender is happy. He’s dealt with a dangerous situation. The card just means he has to be careful from now on but that’s not much of a problem and in any case, the manager can substitute him if necessary, so the offending team receive no significant punishment for their crime.
And what about the attacking team? They get a free kick on the halfway line. Poor reward for what was shaping up for exciting goal scoring opportunity. To make matters worse, the ref will probably spend a moment or two giving the defender a telling off before dishing out the yellow card.
This gives the defending team plenty of time to get regroup and get organised, making it even less likely that attacking team can score.
What this essentially means is that the offenders get off Scot free and the victim gets next to nothing. It’s grossly unfair yet it’s embedded in the fabric of the game. So much so that TV pundits analysing the game see nothing wrong with it. They would even criticise the defender if he didn’t pull the shirt. It’s institutionalised cheating and we shouldn’t stand for it.
You could say that it’s the same for both teams and the team offended against will be doing the offending themselves within a few minutes. This is true but it’s a view that disregards the most important people in this scenario; the fans.
Football is an entertainment and a very expensive one at that. Even the best of games can be mundane for much of the time. They are hopefully lifted by a goal or two involving something special.
Well, a forward darting past two or three defenders and blasting home the winner is something special, but we don’t see enough of it because of cynical fouls involving shirt pulls.
Cast your mind back to one of the greatest goals ever scored in the modern era: Ryan Giggs electrifying run in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal. He picked up the ball in his own half and ghosted past several defenders before getting inside the penalty box and picking his spot.
It was a wonder goal that is still spoken about today.
Imagine if one of those Arsenal defenders had been able to get close enough to him pull his shirt and send him off balance. One of the great moments in the game would have been lost.
It begs the question, how many more great moments would there have been if the punishment fit the crime, making defenders frightened to pull a shirt.
Let’s look at the issue from other side. The European Championships, 2021. A young England team have are drawing 1 – 1 with an ageing Italy side in the final minutes of extra time.
England’s exciting young teenager Bukayo Saka picks up the ball and starts to run. All he has to do is get past the Italian captain Chiellini, aged 36 and almost old enough to be Saka’s dad. Saka has pace to spare; Chiellini is showing his age. There’s no way he could catch a flying machine like Saka.
Fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to; all he needs to do is grab his shirt and take the yellow card, which is even more meaningless than usual because it’s the final minute of the game.
Saka’s chance to bear down on the Italian goal, score the winner for England and book his place in history is snuffed out by a piece of cynical cheating. What do England get as compensation? A meaningless free kick on the halfway line.
The tiring Italian team make it to full time and go on to win on penalties. To add insult to injury, Saka is one the England players who misses his penalty, meaning that he went from potential hero to unfortunate zero in the space of a few minutes. Instead of being celebrated as England’s match winner, he found himself subjected to abuse on social media.
The other disappointing thing about that game is that the professional pundits weren’t outraged by Chiellini’s blatant cheating. In fact, they approved of it saying it showed what a wily old campaigner he was. Shame on them for condoning that kind of behaviour.
Surely we’ve reached a sorry state in the game when that kind of cheating is not only tolerated but praised.
Consider how that scenario might have played out if the rules were different and Chiellini had faced some genuine jeopardy for his cynicism. Suppose the rules said pulling an opponent’s shirt would result in a penalty.
This presents players in Chiellini’s position with a dilemma. They can still pull the shirt but now it comes with real consequences.
In those circumstances, he might decide it’s best to let Saka go and hope he fluffs it or that the goalie makes a great save. This means the game will be able to flow as it should, as the fans want it to and the way any sense of natural justice demands.
Of course, the attacker might still miss, but that’s fine because the game has been allowed to take its natural course.
There is another point that could be made in favour of what might seem a harsh punishment. No player ever pulls an opponent’s shirt by accident. When they make a bad tackle, you can never be sure if it was intentional or not but with shirt pulling there is never any doubt. It is always intentional cheating and as such it should be treated harshly.
Opponents of this idea might argue that punishing shirt pulling in this way would result in several penalties being awarded in every game but that’s not the case. Once players realise they risked giving away a penalty, they’d simply stop with the shirt pulling. It’s as simple as that. They only do it because they know they’ll get away with because the current set-up rewards cheating.
There are some amazing players in the modern game. The fans deserve to see them at their best, without their skills being snuffed out by cynical play that is easy to eliminate. Let’s clamp down on shirt pulling and make the punishment fit the foul…the game will become much more entertaining. The fans deserve nothing less, given the inflated prices they have to pay to watch each game.
Lifelong fan of the Premier League, looking on from the outside since 1999 waiting for Forest to return to the top table where they belong. Probably get promoted this season.