Barcelona 3—Arsenal 1

Robin van Persie’s sending-off for time wasting threatens to turn the philosophical aphorism That is football into a joke.

Robin van Persie realizing that he’d just been sent off for time wasting.

The argument over which league is the best in the world is truly one of the most absurd held today. Since it can never be tested, the contest remains purely speculative and completely open-ended. But it is also one of the more interesting arguments for its ability to pull in criteria lying well beyond the pitch. In fact, it can’t stay on the pitch. It is a football argument with a long cultural reach.

People weigh in wholeheartedly with unsubstantiated positions; one’s feelings are sufficient once declared. Others set about on quixotic analyses, devising classifications and headings, measuring factors and assigning them values. Anything and everything from anywhere is used to make the case; style, individual skill, recent club domestic and European success, league parity, where the best players play, league and club financial strength (from television rights to tax codes), international appeal, fan attendance, stadium atmosphere, governance, weather. In the end this is just a thought experiment no matter the weight given to global finance or Ronaldo step-overs.

There will always be disagreements and irreconcilable positions when it comes to who is the best player in the world, which is the best team, the greatest XI, the best Cup final. A manager’s strategy, a starting eleven, a substitution, or a referee’s call will be endlessly contentious. There will always be tireless (and tiresome) arguments about football matches for as long as there are football matches, from the course of a match’s unfolding events to what should have happened and what didn’t happen.

Football prides itself on indeterminacy. It is the only condition where competing truths of subjective experiences and the emotions of partisan loyalties can co-exist. Multiple perspectives are validated by their inability to be disproved. Somewhere along the way, discussions and arguments break free from the point-by-point rhetoric and float around inconclusively.

And here is where it is declared: That is football. The mutual recognition that there are no answers, nowhere definitive to go, except along the same circuitous routes. It may signal a surrender to cosmic forces, but it goes further in existential affirmation by permitting us to see our immersion in the mysterious, in the tangle of paradoxes, and in the adventure of the ad infinitum that constitutes what is great and absurd in daily life. With little harm, that is football states the eternal conclusion that nothing can be concluded. It brings about disengagement until the arguments resume again.

A match is ninety minutes, but within this designated period time never stops. Stoppage time, which marks the finite, is the judgment of one person. A lack of finality and certainty is a virtue of the game. Every offside call and tackle is a contested truth. The offside rule has about as much subjective influence that the concept of a game can withstand. Every weekend, Lionel Messi is expected to do something that makes us hush, and when he does, we hush—anticipation and expectation lead to the same place. The faster the game becomes, the greater the call to slow it down and gain control, yet goal line technology has met stiff resistance. The incredible feats of human beings on the pitch, as well as their fallibility, contribute to the irrepressible unexpected and mystery embedded in the game.

Whether the final score is 4-3 or 0-0, what one fundamentally needs from a match are moments one can’t believe are happening they way that they just have happened. In the end, one just has to shrug and say that is football.

On rare occasion there is consensus, which can solidify foundations and set precedents, or function like a blood clot traveling through football’s body politic. When there is no argument, there is no sense of self. The arguments, the ‘what ifs” keep one alive. But in such an instance there may be little consensus over what constitutes a universal position, except of course, when it comes to Robin van Persie’s second yellow card for time wasting.

Van Persie was called offside. Between the whistle blowing and van Persie shooting the ball wide of the goal, a single second had lapsed. Reward for the supposedly unnecessary shot was a second yellow for time wasting (van Persie’s first yellow was for unnecessary chest-bumping in a fray). Down 1—0 and to 10 men with thirty-four minutes left in the match, there was no material incentive, no advantage to wasting time. The one second delay can’t be determined an infraction at any point in a game. There was nothing that the referee couldn’t see. There was no legitimate case to be made in the referee’s defense. At the time of the sending-off, the aggregate score stood at 2—2. Barcelona was going through to the quarterfinals unless Arsenal found a way to score one goal. They would need every second.

Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the World Cup was incorrectly ruled to not have completely crossed the goal line. This was a painfully high-profile referee blunder with a clear impact on the match, if only in the change of score. But it puts van Persie’s sending- off in criminal dirty light (Thierry Henri’s handball against Ireland is another useful example. As blatant as it was, the referee didn’t see it.).

One could argue that the only people who didn’t see Lampard’s goal correctly were the referee and linesman. While hundreds of millions of people did see it correctly, there still emerged some inexplicable miraculous moment with speculative outcomes. If Germany hadn’t been decisively better from start to finish, then the injustice would have been impossible to ignore. Either way, the failure to properly administer the game is a sign of its waning integrity.

The shameful sending-off of van Persie, arguably destroyed the match, although no proof could ever be presented. It’s clear impact was to make it 11 vs. 10. Against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, this put Arsenal at a severe disadvantage, but does not write the outcome. Of greater consequence is the damage it does to the game. The debasement resembles WWF wrestling in the 1980s. Rowdy Roddy PepLeaping Lanny Puyol? The sending-off inspires no arguments, no fervent positions, no subjective truths. That is football is now a joke.

3/9/11

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