There were countless numbers of Chelsea fans around the planet who were devastated after we lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal. I was holed up in a hotel in Kefalonia, but from Kensington to Korea it left a bitter taste in the mouths of Blues fans. It is bad enough losing to one of our arch rivals but on top of that they were far from brilliant, we were far from our best apart from at the start of both halves, and something I very rarely comment on, the referee had a very poor game in my eyes.
Of course that sounds like sour grapes. Not a bit of it. I cannot say with hand on heart that we deserved to take the trophy back to west London. I am not that myopic. We did however deserve the chance to play out the game with a full complement of players. Sending Mateo Kovacic off for a second yellow card offence, when if anything he was the man that was fouled, was unacceptable. I know VAR would not be checked for a yellow card (an outrageous oversight in the rules in itself) but in any game that second yellow must be a nailed-on certainty if it leads to such a momentous change in the game. The referee guessed that Kovacic had fouled, doubtless helped on by the squeal from the tackled player. That is not good enough and especially in a major cup final.
To be honest, I would have been far more forgiving had he not been scammed many times before that in the game by certain Arsenal players hitting the deck seemingly mortally wounded, only to be totally recovered seconds later. Or indeed, if he didn’t give the foul for the dive they sprung miraculously back to life, certain they would not be carded for the Oscar-nominated performances.
They weren’t all at it, I am talking about individuals here, not the whole team, and it’s not like Arsenal have sole rights on the patent these days. There are however certain players who know which referees are totally au fait with the rules but are less certain about the dark subtleties of the professional game. This problem of players diving, feigning injury and let’s be blunt, openly cheating by squealing when they go down untouched, has never been more obvious than now when there are no fans in the stadium. I hear these blood-curdling wails when I’m at games at the moment and am ready to call an air ambulance it sounds that bad, only to discover on the replay that as my eyes and not my ears attest, there was no or minimal contact.
Many tell me this is just the modern game and are amazed when I explain that I never dived once in 850 professional games in my career, and that was when the game accepted far more robust tackling than it does today. I, like many others, tried to stay upright and only went down when you were hacked so severely you didn’t have a spare unmangled leg to run on! Think of other modern players as well. Can you remember Frank Lampard ever diving as he was driving into the opposition box? I doubt it, he only had scoring on his mind. But what about those tricky skilful players? From Gianfranco Zola to Lionel Messi there are plenty that have not felt the need to fall over in floods of tears as an opponent comes into the vague vicinity. I’m just not buying that ‘it’s just the modern game’ argument. Cheating is cheating, period.
Do I want a return to those old days of tackles that are akin to assaults? Of course not, we want Willian, Pulisic and yes, Aubameyang and Lacazette to be protected, but I also want fairness and I do not think it is too difficult a conundrum to resolve.
If referees booked players for such antics, they would stop doing it. I am a former chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, so calling out members might sound strange, but it is not when those members are damaging the chances of our other members by their attitudes to fairness.
Happily we can stop this scourge of the game overnight, and groan if you like, but the use of VAR and instant replays are the answer. Any player who it can be proved is diving anywhere on the field, and especially if he screams and rolls around, should be immediately sent off. If this is not spotted during the game but only afterwards, then an automatic ban should ensue, just as it would with violent conduct. Hey Presto, diving of the worst type stops overnight.
I’m fairly convinced that there were players who screamed more than Azpi, Pedro and Pulisic at Wembley and those three had serious painful injuries. Of course this will sound like bitterness, but as I say I don’t believe we played well enough to win, and probably wouldn’t have got the goal back had Kovacic stayed on. I just detest seeing this part of the game being ever-more accepted. It’s time to at least try to root it out.