I really didn’t want to write this piece. I’d hoped the African Cup of Nations would be a glorious prelude to the biggest show of all, Africa’s first ever World Cup in June. I had hoped to see some brilliant attacking football, the sort of stuff exemplified by the Cameroon’s, Nigeria’s and Senegal’s of World Cups gone by. Instead, before the tournament even starts the Togo side were attacked on the way to the tournament.

Whilst this is a horrendous act of terrorism, and my thoughts go out to the team and their families, I can’t but help look at the bigger picture. Now I know, Angola and South Africa aren’t neighbours (although Angola shares a border with Botswana and Namibia, as does South Africa) the fact this is the continent’s first World Cup surely means we should be concerned by this lack of security.

Now my good friend Ross wrote a piece on the perils of Africa back in November, and this latest attack is just another tragedy in a long line of horrific events on the continent. However, if FIFA and CAF can’t keep the players safe, what chance do they have of ensuring the security of millions fans in June?

Now I’m expecting a few of you to think I’m scaremongering, and that FIFA will learn from this. Maybe I am, but I am genuinely concerned about the tournament itself. And I think the blame lies squarely at Sepp Blatter’s door.

The World Cup can bring so much to a nation. Much needed income is thrust into the economy, which can only benefit South Africa and hopefully the continent as a whole. However, I think the question needs to be asked is ‘has this World Cup been awarded too soon?’

Sepp Blatter has said throughout his reign as FIFA chief that he wanted to take the World Cup to Africa. It became his dream, his over-riding goal. And I admire that, I really do. However, it is of no coincidence that his reign is due to finish soon, and if he had not been influential in South Africa gaining this competition, he will have failed in his goal.

I must pose this question to you all though; is failure in that goal really as bad as the death of the Togolese last Friday?

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

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I had hoped I’d be able to discuss another topic in today’s blog, but the Ireland-France row seems to have taken another turn. I guess it’s only right for me to give my two penneth.

It would seem the Irish FA are not prepared to let the dust settle following Henry’s handball, and even the Irish government are getting involved in the argument. Now as much as I sympathise with them over the incident, and I agree that losing in that manner is a travesty, I think calling for a replay is somewhat ridiculous.

If FIFA were to agree to this request, the sport of football would be thrown into chaos, and that is something which cannot be allowed to happen. I also believe it is dangerous for politicians to start meddling in sport, which I’ll come on to later.

First thing for me to say here is I don’t blame the Irish FA for being angry. I can certainly understand them questioning the referee’s ability to officiate the game, but calling for a replay is taking things too far. And surely they know what the ramifications would be if their request is granted by FIFA. We’d have replays every week! Manchester United would never lose another game, as every time they do Fergie criticises the referee. Imagine if they had the power to call for a replay?

World football would go into meltdown if this precedent was set by FIFA, and it is naive in the extreme of the FAI to think FIFA will not consider the future if they agree to this request. And how many times has another nation been cheated out of a world cup, or European Championship spot? Indeed, England won the tournament in 1966 with a very fortuitous award from a certain Russian linesman. Then on the flip side, there was the ‘hand of God’ in 1986. If FIFA agree to the replay, how far back do we go? Do we just think of games this season, or do we look to replay every game since 1865? And what happens if the incident occurs in a match that is won 5-0? Does the right to request replays still stand? I appreciate I’m being facetious here, but quite frankly, I think the FAI are mentalists!

While the game is in the current state, the FAI should instead be taking this on the chin. Yes, call for increased technology, call for actions to be taken against the referee if they must, but the replay request MUST be denied. Incidentally, I thought the referee had a fantastic game, barring this one incident. The game was allowed to flow, he didn’t go overboard with yellow cards, and he saw through Anelka’s blatant attempt at diving. I think the real rage here should be towards the linesman, who had a clear view of Henry’s handball as well as the fact there were two French players offside when the ball was played.

I also can’t let the fact the Irish government joined in the call for a replay slide. As much as I can understand the frustration they may have felt as fans, the cynic in me believes there is only one true motivation for them adding their voice to the request: money. I truly believe that government should stay out of sport unless they are considering supporter well-being. This well-being can be either physical safety or financial well-being, ensuring sport remains affordable. However, this does not include heartbreak, like the way many irish fans will be feeling now.

It’s no coincidence that the Irish government would call for a replay in a time the world is in recession. After all, world cup qualification offers economies all over the world a boost, but when your nation is involved the boost is substantial. I really belive the Irish government have opened themselves up to criticism with this comment.

However, the French government commenting is more favourable. Indeed, French MP Christine Lagarde has offered her support to the replay call, which is commendable. Indeed, it would appear that 80% of the French population support the replay request. If the French Federation feel similar, the replay is feasible, but the approval will not come from FIFA themselves.

Indeed, I fully expect the French to move on and look forward to the World Cup. I’m sad to say this, but I hope the Irish can too.

There was never going to be another blog topic today. After a fantastic example of international football in Paris, the ‘Hand of Henry’ broke Irish hearts and once again opened up the technology debate. As for Henry himself, I’ll come to that later.

Technology in football is very divisive amongst fans, players and managers. Indeed, my good friend Mr Mantle wrote just last week that he didn’t want to see video technology in the game as the drama of wrong decisions is part-and-parcel of this sport we love so much.

He makes a good point. Football is all about drama. Each match seems to contain a bucket load of the stuff, and none of us want to see that dwindle down. However, there comes a point where we have to act. As many people are so keen to point out now, football is a business these days, no longer just a game. It seems like every match played is worth ‘millions’ but last night was worth more than money; last night was about playing on the biggest stage in world sport.

For a match worth so much to be decided on a blatant act of cheating leaves a really bad taste in the mouth, and once again FIFA will be asked to assess the options open to them. There are a couple available.

The first is to introduce a video ref. The video ref could have the role of watching off-the-ball incidents, as well as being able to tell the referee when a player has dived or the ball has crossed the line. The positives of this are that there will now be no excuse for a referee to get a decision wrong. However, it will come at a cost to the flow of the game, and the drama will be gradually squeezed out.

The second option would be more referees. Now we’ve already seen the Europa League scenario, with an additional linesman behind each goal. However, the problem here is people don’t seem to be exactly sure what they’re meant to be doing. On top of this, we’ve seen some decisions slide in the competition, so it would seem that their vantage point may not be ideal. Perhaps standing behind the goal might make the job a little easier? However, I think the game may benefit more by having 2 linesman in each half. The three-dimensional view the officials will then have would certainly make a few decisions easier.

I have to say I agree with Ross, and I’m not really behind the call for a video ref. I think it will be too detrimental on the pace of the game, as what we want to see most of all is a game that’s allowed to flow. However, that does not mean I don’t want to embrace technology. As I stated on an earlier blog, I believe we should add a microchip to the ball, and a light behind the goal that turns on when the ball crosses the line. That is one decision referees clearly need taking out their hands, and I’m certain that is help they would appreciate. However, it also keeps the drama in the rest of the game.

I would also then introduce two more linesmen.

But the second part of this blog is reserved for cheating, and today it is Thierry Henry who deserves a special mention.

I don’t know about you, but that is about as blatant a handball as I’ve ever seen. After the match, he even had the audacity to say it wasn’t deliberate. I’m sorry, if that wasn’t deliberate I’m an Argentine and my name is ‘Juan’. And once again, the referee is getting abuse for not spotting it. Henry’s ‘I’m not the referee, it is not my job to spot it’ attitude really sticks in the throat. No Thierry, it’s not your job to referee the game, but it’s also not your job to handle the ball and score from it, but you did that OK didn’t you?

Of course, we may very well have been having another debate today. ‘Le Sulk’ Anelka could also have been responsible for cheating the Irish out of a World Cup spot if his blatant dive had been interpreted differently by the referee. Now this was even worse than Henry in my opinion. At least handball is ‘instinctual’, rather than a pre-meditated attempt at cheating. However, Anelka should be held-to-rights over his Tom Daley impression.

And just to finish this off, I wonder what devoted Frenchman and UEFA President Michel Platini made of last night’s action? After all, he’s been as quiet as it gets today. I wonder if the same would be said had a similar incident occurred against the French yesterday?

Just a thought…

Regular readers will know by now I hold most of football’s regulatory bodies in deep contempt. The announcement that FIFA are not prepared to explore technology on the goal line for at least another 18 months doesn’t do them any favours in my book.

Clubs all over the world are crying out for goal-line technology. Just a simple microchip in the ball, linked to a light behind it, would be enough to clarify whether a goal should be given or not. However, once again FIFA and the IFAB (International Football Association Board) seem to be on another planet to the people they claim to represent.

The most infuriating part of this is that on the 4th October, after a referee and his assistant failed to allow a strike from Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino against Lazio in Serie A, Blatter FINALLY seemed to accept technology was required.

“We still haven’t found anything which settles the problem. Now the inventor of Hawk-Eye (the system used in both Tennis and cricket) has said publicly his system would work. We will gladly take a look at it,” he said.

This from the man who instead said that more officials were the answer. We’ve then seen the controversial introduction of extra referees in this year’s Europa League, who none of us can say what they’ve actually provided in the three rounds they’ve been available for. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this experiment continue into next Summer’s World Cup either.

However, FIFA had allowed some associations to try their own systems in non-league football, which includes the English FA. This latest ruling means that these trials cannot be taken any further until FIFA and IFAB’s AGM in March 2011.

The only positive to come from this appears to be Sepp Blatter has finally accepted that without this technology, too many big games are decided on errors of judgement. As much as FIFA insist the element of human error must still be a part of the game, even referees would like help in deciding whether the ball has crossed the line or not.

Despite my frustration that progress will not be made until 2011, I take my hat off to FIFA for finally exploring the proposal.

I just wish it hadn’t taken them so long.

There are a few thing in the game which really frustrate me right now. One of those is diving, but I’ve covered that one before. Another is defenders not being penalised for obstruction when they make no effort to play the ball as it rolls out for a goal kick, yet they do everything they can to stop the attacker from playing it. Thirdly is the number of players who aren’t penalised in the box at set pieces, despite their actions belonging in a WWE wrestling ring. But the biggest one by a million miles is players being penalised for slide tackles, despite winning the ball.

There were a few of these over the weekend. Celtic captain ‘Mick’ McManus was penalised on the edge of the box for a tackle where he clearly won the ball, but the worst one this weekend was in the La Liga match between Sportin Gijon and Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos made a fantastic tackle, clearly winning the ball, and not only was he penalised but he was booked too!

Now I appreciate that an effort has been made to protect the more skillfull players, and to outlaw the type of defending we used to see from the Italians and ‘Chopper’ Harris, but now it has gone too far. I don’t know about you, but when I go to games I like to see players showing commitment, fighting for the shirt, and the crowd can get just as excited about a great sliding challenge as they do when their team wins a corner.

However, FIFA’s new requirement to referees to book players for ‘violent intent’ is a nonsense. It makes me wonder if the rule changes are dreamt up while some clown watches the NBA, and is seriously something which needs to be reversed for the good of the game.

I want to see attacking football as much as the next man, but I also want to see a midfield battle and I appreciate ‘the art of defending’. However, the way we are going any type of contact at all is leading to a free kick. This makes an absolute mockery of the sport.

What is particularly annoying is that while fair tackles are being penalised, we also get to see actions like those of River Plate striker Ariel Ortega in yesterday’s River-Boca game. Ortega did his bit to get Boca defender Julio César Cáceres sent off by going down holding his face despite the tiniest amount of contact on his chest. Seriously, it was like Dida and Rivaldo all over again, and there is only word that accurately describes his actions: cheating.

The net result of this is a poorer game (or ‘product’, as some insist on calling it) all round, played by cheats and wimps more concerned with their hair gel than playing for their fans. Is it any wonder that English Rugby players know the Premier League as the ‘Brylcreem Premiership’? Football is supposed to be a contact sport, yet some players would be better off on a diving board, or maybe starring in the ‘Scottish Play’ than being on the football pitch.

I’d humbly suggest that FIFA sit down and reassess their priorities with the way the laws of the game are changing, or they’ll slowly start turning fans away from the ‘beautiful game’.

Still, there’s always basketball eh?

Oh how the sport’s governing bodies get on my nerves. First, we see UEFA backing down to the big clubs in the diving furore, and now it’s FIFA’s turn.

All the way through the World Cup qualifying, we were told that the draw to the play offs would be unseeded, an old fashioned winner-takes-all draw with no benefits to anybody. Now, FIFA notice that Portugal, France and Russia have missed out on first place in their groups so they move the goalposts.

What happens? The Irish get the most difficult available task of course: the French. Obviously, Ireland could have drawn France anyway but there was an air of inevitability about the draw being made from the moment Sepp Blatter made his seeding announcement.

There were two arguments given by FIFA as to why they took this decision. The first is a footballing reason. Blatter claimed a World Cup could not be the same without the ‘big guns’ of World football. Maybe not, but if the ‘big guns’ aren’t good enough to qualify that’s just hard cheese isn’t it? It’s not like the goal posts are moved so that Northern Ireland, Wales or the Faroes have a better chance, why should things change for Portugal?

The second idea is that it was a purely commercial decision. This theory seems to think that for some reason, sponsors will pull out without the likes of Ronaldo and co in the competition. Yeah right. This is the biggest tournament in the world’s most popular game. If one sponsor wants to pull out, let them. There will be about 20 others willing to take their place.

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni was quick in his condemnation for Blatter’s idea, urging him to reassess his priorities or face the ‘death of football’. Ireland keeper Given also criticised the plan, calling it ‘disgusting’. In a withering attack, Given raged at the timing of Blatter’s announcement, coming with just two games remaining in the qualifying stage.

“There are people high up in delegations, and maybe their countries need a hand to qualify. The rules should be laid out clearly before any ball is kicked and then there’s no dark cloud or whatever. It’s ridiculous how they can make a decision now when some of the big-name nations are maybe struggling to qualify. It’s totally unfair on the smaller nations. It’s pretty disgusting, to be honest. To change it at this stage is beyond belief. It’s crazy and I don’t know how they have got away with it or how the smaller nations like ourselves haven’t put up a bigger fight. All the nations should try to kick up a fuss, not just us, because I don’t believe it’s right.”

And of course, he’s right. For too long now have football draws favoured big nations, and big clubs. The Champions League, the greatest club tournament on Earth, is now also the most boring tournament on Earth as the last 8 (or even the last 4) is painfully predictable.

It’s time for a shake up. If you weren’t good enough to qualify for a major competition by winning your group, then the back door should be closed until you unlock it yourself. And for the sake of the game, Blatter must be made to see this. He’s announced he’s running for a fourth term in 2011, but federations should refuse to nominate him until he understands this fundamental error in his leadership.

And as for the Champions League, all seedings should be thrown out the window, along with country protection. Can you imagine a group featuring Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona? Now THAT’S European football.

As always, your comments are greatly appreciated.