Friday, November 20, 2009

Time for video replay after refereeing blunder costs British Isles team for the second straight tournament

I know it’s sacrilege to associate the Irish with the British, but today, the Republic of Ireland’s location on the British Isles makes it a brethren to another resident of those same Isles- Scotland- after their national soccer team was robbed of a chance to play in a major soccer tournament by a refereeing mistake. Like the blunder that cost the Scots, the beneficiary were the French, only this time the tournament was the World Cup and the French were actually playing the Irish when the dubious call occurred, unlike the Scots who were playing the Italians for a chance to play at Euro 2008 and where a Scottish loss qualified the French.

For those of you who did not see the play, here’s what happened. Ireland entered the game in Paris down 1-0 in the two-game, total goals playoff. In the 31st minute, Robbie Keane netted the game’s first goal, lifting Ireland level in the playoff. Because there were no other goals over the next 59 minutes (quelle surprise), the playoff was tied on aggregate meaning game went into extra time. Extra time in soccer is not “sudden death” as it is in hockey, but any goals scored in this period would have meant there would be no penalty shootout since the scores would be added to the aggregate score. If France scored more goals than the Irish in the period, they would advance to the World Cup, but if the Irish scored at least the same amount of goals as the French in the period, they would advance to the Cup on the “away goals” rule. France thus had more pressure, since if they conceded a goal they needed to score twice, making the defending job easier for the Irish.

It was here in this extra period where the Irish were robbed. In the 13th minute of extra time- the 103rd in the game- a ball was lifted over several Irish defenders into the penalty box towards French striker Thierry Henry. The ball was hit too hard for Henry’s outstretched feet to meet the ball, so Henry stuck his arm out and met the ball with his hand- twice. The ball landed to his feet where he lobbed a perfect pass to William Gallas’ head, allowing the Arsenal defender to nod the ball past helpless Irish goalkeeper Shay Given. Given and the Irish protested to referee Martin Hansson, who upheld the goal. Ireland did still have 17 minutes to secure an equalizer, but ultimately Hansson’s howler sealed their fate.

After the game, the Irish were- to a man- rightfully claiming they were jobbed, and Henry himself admitted he handled the ball, but passed the buck, stating “I am not the referee.” Hansson said he did not see the offence, and, given the fact that Hansson was standing around 30 yards away from the incident and Henry was behind several defenders, Hansson is believable, though this doesn’t make the bungling excusable. This was not the first time Ireland felt jobbed by FIFA officials- when FIFA announced they would be “seeding” teams for the European qualification playoffs, the Irish players were at the forefront of the protestations, fairly stating that the move sought to hurt “small” soccer nations like Slovenia and Ireland at the expense of the “big” nations like France and Portugal. Accusations were levelled at the time at FIFA for acquiescing to commercial interests in ensuring the “big” nations progressed to the Cup tournament in South Africa. Perhaps FIFA president Sepp Blatter is laughing at the “poetic justice” he wrought on the Irish, but the truth is that his shenanigans are sullying the prestige and even the legitimacy of his sport.

To be fair, Hansson’s mistake is different than the one Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez made against the Scots, as that was a foul Gonzalez saw but erred on the call, but it was still a refereeing error all the same. In that incident, Scotland and Italy were tied at one in a game that essentially decided which nation would qualify for Euro 2008. In the 91st minute, Italian winger Giorgio Chellini and Scottish left back Alan Hutton raced for a loose ball near Scotland’s left corner flag. Hutton got to the ball first, but Chellini literally bodychecked him then, as if on cue, Chellini himself fell to the ground. A whistle came for the foul, so Hutton- thinking the foul was on Chellini, as it should have been- got up, brushed aside Chellini and was about to boom the ball upfield before being told the foul was actually on him. The surprised Scots protested unsuccessfully and took up defensive positions, but it was to no avail- Italy’s Andrea Pirlo curled a perfect ball into the box for Christian Panucci to nod home for a 2-1 Italian lead that was sure to stand up with just seconds to go in the game (though Scotland did manage one half chance before time expired). The loss officially eliminated a plucky Scot team similar in character to the 2009 Irish team from contention for Euro 2008 and, just like Hansson’s decision, put an undeserving French team into the prestigious tournament.

That play and this latest play bring about short-term and long-term solutions. The short-term solution and the only real answer to the problem is for soccer to adopt some kind of video replay. It’s absolutely ludicrous that the most televised sport in the world refuses to use this valuable footage to get the calls on the field right and, as we’ve seen, blown calls are costly. You’d think after embarrassments such as Henry’s hand or Rivaldo’s dive that FIFA would be more receptive to the idea of video review, but the “purists” of the game- the same lot who think that just criticizing defensive-minded managers will get them to change their ways (name me a coach who’d rather be entertaining than a winner and I might consider joining the purists) instead of considering *some* rule changes- always protest, accusing it of being an “Americanization” and that it would “slow down the game”. The “Americanization” part I won’t deal with because it’s an emotional argument with no rationale, but as to the game being “slowed down”, it is a legitimate complaint but one that ultimately holds no water. It would be an extra delay, but it wouldn’t be a costly one- video reviews can take just a minute or two, and soccer games are already held up by things like players feigning injuries and a team trying to organize its set piece “just right” (not to mention protestations to the ref...).

Implementation would be the only concern, though. Soccer’s clock is continuous and technically has no “timeouts”, so finding the right moment to stop play is a challenge. It’s possible just to limit video review to disputed goals (and, perhaps, by extension penalties) which have “natural” breaks, but there so many other points of dispute (like, perhaps, a missed penalty or an offside call) that could decide a match and thus would benefit from a review, so it would be pertinent to figure out how to work that kind of a review into the game. Managers should also be given the opportunity to “stop” the game to challenge a call because if we just leave that discretion to the referees, no doubt they are going to miss a contentious event (would Hansson have thought to seek out review, for instance, considering he was too far away from the play to see it clearly?). Obviously, managers would have to be restricted in this regard- I say just once per game, successful or not- because we don’t want managers to obsessively nitpick every call, but it’s clear they need to have some power in disputing a potentially game-changing call.

As for Ireland’s replay request- granting it seems fair, but I’m hesitant about it, because we don’t want to have every contentious game being replayed as that would mean hundreds of games would be redone every year. Replays should only be ordered in extreme situations, and I’m just not sure if Hansson’s error is that extreme. Sure, it cost Ireland a spot in the World Cup, but they are not the only one nor will they be the only one to have a refereeing error cost them a spot in the tournament. There is precedent for a replay- Uzbekistan and Bahrain were told to replay the first leg of their 2006 Cup qualification playoff after referee Toshimitsu Yoshida made a mistake in applying the rules dealing with penalties- but I’m not sure how the Irish game measures up in comparison. As “Pardon The Interruption” host Tony Reali pointed out (without naming names), Hansson missed a call, Yoshida erred in applying it; and even then, it’s debatable that incident was extreme enough to warrant a replay anyway. Besides, the Irish shouldn’t think a replay would send them to the World Cup- Uzbekistan requested that replay in 2005, and they lost to Bahrain in their playoff. So be careful of what you wish for.

Long-term, this may just be the straw that breaks the back of Blatter’s presidential career. In his eleven years of being FIFA president, I have a hard time coming up with positive changes he’s enacted in the game. His record is tarnished by multiple embarrassments, such as Rivaldo’s dive, inane remarks (such as calling Manchester United’s 2008 refusal to sell Cristiano Ronaldo “slavery”), botched games like the Ireland game and multiple accusations of corruption. He, like his counterpart at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in Michel Platini, has been the poster-boy for soccer “purism”, refusing to buck from his narrow-minded nostalgic viewpoint of the game, like when he dreamed up the “6+5” rule (where club teams would be required to start six players considered “nationals” of the country they are based in) thinking this would end the disparity of “big clubs” against “little clubs”, instead of coming up with a better distribution system for soccer’s wealth to end the big clubs’ current monopoly on it. As Blatter and his 1978 way of thinking is the roadblock to soccer’s entry into the 21st century, it’s pertinent we get rid of the roadblock- and find someone who will take the crucial next step. We can’t have any more disputed games accruing corruption allegations and crippling the sport’s legitimacy, not if soccer wants to continue as the world’s top sport. Shay Given, the Irish and the sport’s billions of fans deserve no less.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top 10 reasons why Bill Belichick went for it on 4th down Sunday night

Perhaps I’m late with this, but two nights after it happened, I still can’t believe New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would think of trying to convert a fourth down with 2:08 to go where he was up by just six points, and on archrival Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts no less. Since Belichick isn’t in the habit of actually giving detailed explanations (all he had to say about the botched play- a short pass to Kevin Faulk which Faulk bobbled, resulting in a tackle a yard short of the first down marker- was that “we thought we could make it”), I figured I’d do some crack research and come up with some answers. My findings are based on responses Belichick was overheard to have given other people shortly after the game. The results may surprise you.

10. “Punt? That’s a four-letter word, you better not say that again.”

9. “We gained 477 yards in that game. What’s another 2?”

8. “Nostradamus said we would get it.”

7. “4th and 2? Well, 4 divided by 2 is 1, so that has to mean ‘first down’.”

6. “[Detroit Lions kicker] Chris Hanson left the Lions yesterday, so Jason [Hanson, the Patriots’ punter] had to fill in for him today. Jason was too tired to take that punt.”

5. “I knew the game was on NBC, so I thought I’d make my game entertaining for once.”

4. “I wanted to make up for the fact we didn’t get that 4th and 13 conversion in the Super Bowl a while back.”

3. “I knew Tony Dungy was watching. I wanted to remind him how I beat him all those times.”

2. “I knew Rodney Harrison was watching. I didn’t want him to see why we miss him so much.”

1. “I’m Bill Belichick B***”.


P.S. This is a joke, in case you didn’t guess it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Let's not get blue about swine flu

I had my graduation ceremony this past Tuesday at Georgian College. You can probably guess how much fun I had at a canned ceremony full of talking heads who had absolutely nothing to do with my program (so much for the school being “student-friendly”) telling us all the same clichés about all the potential we’d achieve (including some New Age crap about how some guy felt restricted by “having a finish line”...I guess he never got anything done, did he?), as well as having some “Convocation Marshalls” who were quite snippy. The only good news was that I saw most of my old classmates, which made the pain of the ceremony a little easier to take.

That wasn’t the worst part of the ceremony- the worst part was when one of the emcees of the ceremony announced that because of “fears of H1N1” the dignitaries who’d be giving me my diploma and make me feel special to share the stage with them would refuse to shake my hand- never mind that Brian Tamblyn, the president of Georgian, got his head really close to most of us in moving our sash from our arms to our shoulders, allowing us to momentarily share the same airspace face-to-face, which would be enough time with enough proximity to transmit a flu to Mr. Tamblyn anyway, even though he didn’t touch our evil hands. I have to say, it never felt so weird- or more wrong- to get congratulatory “fist pumps” from our teachers instead of a handshake. Hey guys, I’m not Matt Stairs after he hits a home run or that guy who turns everything he touches into Skittles- my hands aren’t evil.

The embarrassing ordeal did get me thinking about this apparent “swine flu” crisis that’s apparently starting to hit our shores as we speak, a fact that was underscored by the death of a 13-year-old male hockey player to H1N1 over the weekend. The player- Evan Frustaglio- apparently came down with the flu, seemingly recovered then unexpectedly collapsed. It was reported that Frustaglio had no prior medical condition, but both a doctor and his father did cite prior respiratory problems in his life, it’s not entirely unprecedented for athletes to experience untimely deaths (look up Sergei Zholtok and Alexei Cherprenov) and one shouldn’t be surprised that a hockey player- playing and sweating in freezing conditions- could get the flu. Frustaglio’s death is unfortunate, but let’s keep it in perspective.

What is the truth regarding H1N1, the stuff the sensationalist media (one Mr. Tamblyn and his staff at Georgian take a little too literally) is not telling you? Well, to begin, we have to start with the flu that the 2009 virus is being compared to and that’s the 1918-19 “Spanish influenza”, currently the deadliest flu outbreak in human history.

First of all, it’s technically incorrect to call it the “Spanish flu”, because it did not originate in- or even hit first- the country of Spain. The reason why it’s called the “Spanish flu” is because when the flu started to hit- in early 1918- World War I was still going on, and Spain was the only country affected by it and reporting on it that was neutral, so it was thought that Spanish authorities were the most trusted sources of information and were largely seen as the only ones really “doing anything about it”. The origin of the flu is not known, but it did hit North America before it hit Europe, and it hit in two waves- first in the summer then in the fall of 1918.

The first wave behaved like a normal flu, with extremely low mortality rates with deaths only in the so-called “expected” groups- infants, the elderly and any other kind of immunocompromised person. Then, in late August, the second wave- the one that would become the famous flu- hit, having a mortality rate between 10-20% of infected cases, with many of those deaths being young, healthy adults between the ages of 20-40. Some of the most famous deaths from the virus include Montreal Canadiens defenceman “Bad” Joe Hall (his death and the sickness of many players forced the cancellation of the 1918 Stanley Cup Final), the first South African Prime Minister Louis Botha and British diplomat and soldier Mark Sykes (whose body would be later exhumed for Spanish flu research). It’s estimated that of the population of people affected by the flu, 50% were infected, leading to the death of between 3-6% of the world’s total population, leading some historians to dub the flu as worse than the 1348 Black Death (that one got 25% of Europe (which was “the world”) which I think makes it worse than the 1918 epidemic but that’s a different debate).

The extremely high infection and death rates, not to mention the population profile of the hardest-hit victims, are the most peculiar aspects of the virus. Many theories have been postulated as to why the virus struck as it did. The cause of death in many of the victims is something called a “cytokine storm”, or basically when the immune system’s response to a pathogen is so strong it starts to hurt the body itself. It is reasoned here that naturally, the immune systems of young adults are stronger than the immune systems of others and would be more susceptible to this kind of attack. However, the reasons why a cytokine storm occurs are not yet fully understood, and there are other reasons why the 1918 flu struck as it did, without having to sensationalize it.

First of all, it was wartime, and not just that but the end of what was a brutal, uncompromising war. Let us not forget that the powers that be in 1914 went to war believing that they’d only be fighting for a few months and weren’t prepared for a five-year war- so they dug trenches and went back and forth shooting at the pathetic attempts to run to the other trench to take it over, the running soldiers mere “moving targets”. You can only imagine what the close quarters of a trench would do, combined with obviously fatigued (and somewhat immunocompromised) soldiers- it’s a perfect powder keg for the emergence of a deadly flu. The other part of the equation is that doctors at the time did not know what they were dealing with, as they would not wear their masks properly (they may cover their mouths but not their noses) and would at times misdiagnose the pathogen altogether. Obviously, now we’re more knowledgeable at handling and identifying the flu (we even have a vaccine for the swine flu) so we’re better prepared for an outbreak. It is also worth noting that sanitary conditions in 1918 were nothing like they are now, to say nothing of the medical conditions. How many of those deaths could be prevented had those other factors been taken into consideration is an open debate, but I believe if the Spanish flu hit today, it wouldn’t be as devastating.

This brings us to the current outbreak. There was an initial frenzy after the flu was first reported in Mexico in late March, providing an additional scare since several deaths fit the profile of several of the deaths from 1918, but since the Mexican outbreak, the flu hasn’t been nearly as deadly, regressing to fit the behaviour pattern of a “normal” flu- i.e., one that affects the essentially immunocompromised. Why it struck Mexico particularly hard was baffling at first, though it bears mentioning that living conditions in Mexico City- the hardest hit area in Mexico- are still quite depressed (although it is improving) and that perhaps contributed to some deaths. New details have also emerged, suggesting that Mexico vastly underreported its cases and even misidentified some of the cases as “swine flu” when the affliction was another pathogen altogether. Finally, it’s worth noting that since Mexico had its initial outbreak, nothing else has come of it, as the Mexican policy of shutting down the entirety of its capital city for a weekend at the height of the outbreak appeared to curb it, as no new serious news has arisen from Mexico since the initial outbreak.

Since the scare, further research has shown that the flu poses no threat to gain in lethality. Scientists at the University of Maryland mixed swine flu with seasonal flu and concluded that both would not combine into something more lethal. The virus also only showed increased severity in Mexico- everywhere else it has been mild, and as stated before there is reason to believe it wasn’t that dangerous in Mexico at all. Finally, while previously healthy people have come down with severe complications from H1N1, they are the exceptions rather than the rule and in some cases they even had a prior history of medical problems (the 13-year-old boy who died in Toronto did have respiratory problems earlier in his life, for example).

This isn’t to say that we should ignore H1N1- far from it; since it’s new we ought to be cognizant of it. However, overreactions such as refusing to give a graduate a handshake are unnecessary- this isn’t an overtly serious virus and besides, living in fear is no way to combat a virus. I also believe if this virus ever does become more severe- which is doubtful at this stage- we’d all be quarantined and wouldn’t be allowed to interact like we already do; plus we have the capability to fight the flu better than we did in 1918, so any fears of a repeat are unfounded. The only frustrating part about the outbreak is the fact that the vaccination is delayed, but it still doesn’t change the fact this virus isn’t that dangerous.

It doesn’t change the fact that I’m still owed a handshake, so Mr. Tamblyn and my teachers...I’m waiting. Unless you’re worried I’m going to turn you into Skittles.