UEFA drops the ball

MORRIS DALLA COSTA

, Last Updated: 7:24 AM ET

UEFA has done the right thing but chosen the wrong time to do it.

This should have been done a year ago, not two months before the second biggest soccer event in the world.

Instead, UEFA has chosen to tell referees to crack down on rule infractions when 16 nations take to the field in Austria and Switzerland in June for Euro 2008.

With almost no lead time until the tournament, the referees will enter the event with the instructions fresh in their mind. They have been asked to crack down on excessive force in tackles and on simulation of injuries.

They have been told to crack down on players pushing, shoving and grabbing each other before a corner kick or free kick to get position, and on players who disrespect referees or go on extended episodes of dissent.

Assistant referees will be given additional responsibilities enabling them to make calls the man in the middle can't see.

For their part, the players will be ill-prepared to change their ways, which have been ingrained for years.

UEFA has pinpointed areas that must be fixed for the game to advance. These aren't new rules but old rules that need enforcing. Simulation, or faking, is the one thing which continually brings the game into disrepute. It's one of the most difficult decisions a referee has to make, especially when it involves a fake injury. The image of a player howling in pain, rolling over and over, carted off on a stretcher after five minutes, then returning to the game and sprinting 50 yards, has become all too familiar.

A change in the rules would be ideal. Anyone who goes down and stays down for an extended period should be forced to sit out for an extended period, leaving the team a man short.

If a player is hurt, he'll need that time to recover anyway. If the player is really hurt, his team can replace him right away. If a player is faking, he has just punished his team by cheating. It wouldn't take long for a habitual diver to be reprimanded by his own team.

WILL BE CRITICIZED

The change won't happen. It's far too drastic, so it will be left to the referees to sink or swim on their own decision-making.

They will be criticized for the calls they do or don't make but it will lead to the teams themselves telling their players to go down only when it's the real thing and to knock off the diving for fear of being punished.

UEFA also has done the right thing by putting the decision-making back into the hands of the referees, allowing them more leeway to punish players for dissent.

There is nothing more disconcerting than watching a handful of players question every decision; than having a player who is 40 yards away from the play, run in to tell the referee what to do or having a player hold his hand in the air mimicking the handing out of a card.

It's all good, but it puts the referees under tremendous pressure on an international stage. And, to boot, they'll have to referee with a stringent directive in pressure-packed, emotional games with players unused to the change.

Sounds like a fun time in Europe.


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