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Imaginary card waving is abuse in any language

Attempting to get players booked and con referees is nothing new in football, writes Richard Sadlier

There is always something. The latest threat to the beautiful game is the unsporting, disrespectful, disreputable, unprofessional, non-British (delete as appropriate) practice of using your hand to make a point that was previously acceptable to make with your mouth.

Wayne Rooney did it while playing in the Manchester derby, and Roberto Mancini appeared to do it during City's recent games against Liverpool and Wigan. If you're unaware of the specifics of the crime, allow me to explain.

Instead of shouting aggressively at referees, using bad language and gesticulating wildly and angrily (as players, managers and supporters have always done), some people have recently chosen to introduce into English football the habit of waving their hand in a specific way to demonstrate they believe the referee should issue a booking. I'm not sure exactly how long people have been doing this, but the most recent examples seem to have caused a stir.

There are many incidents in every game in which players try to incorrectly influence the officials when awarding throw-ins, goal-kicks or corner kicks. They are deliberately trying to con the referee in each case to gain an unfair advantage for their team. It's an instinctive response to the ball leaving the pitch and I've done it many times myself. A lot of people would have no issue with this. Imaginary card-waving, on the other hand, occurs when the referee is urged to book a player deemed guilty of a bookable offence.

But it's really nothing new, and I cannot understand the argument from those who seem to be outraged. I can only assume the implication that some professionals would seek to get others booked or sent off is actually what is most troubling to people here. If that is the case, and you are one of those people, what do you think players from a team that have just been awarded a penalty kick are saying to the referee when they surround him? What do you think managers are roaring at fourth officials when their players are being persistently fouled? And what are players saying to referees when their team-mate is receiving treatment on the ground while they wait to take a free-kick? They are urging the referee to implement the laws of the game and give appropriate punishment, and nobody can have a problem with that. We've seen this behaviour for years.

There is no difference in my view in asking the referee to award a throw-in to your team and asking him to apply the letter of the law by booking an opponent. Imaginary card-waving -- even the term is ridiculous -- can only be objected to on the grounds that it just looks bad. Any substantive argument against it must be formed on the basis that all feedback urging referees to book opponents must be outlawed. And because nobody is suggesting that, the campaign against this particular offence can be dismissed as mere window-dressing. It doesn't seek to change the minds of those involved, it just asks they desist from using a particular method to express themselves.

Conveniently forgetting that England's centre-forward did it first, some have blamed Mancini's failure to understand English culture for his actions. Perhaps they could have been more direct and blamed his failure to understand or, more specifically, speak English. Maybe they're right, maybe his lack of time in England is a factor. If it is, I'm sure Mancini will improve his grasp of English and be able to bollock and harangue officials when he sees fit, as others do. In the meantime, though, it's just easier for him to signal what he means. Nearly all managers appeal decisions during games, shouting in the direction of the referee or into the ear of the fourth official. Once you accept this, objecting to the specific manner in which they do so seems absurd.

Who knows, maybe all this outrage will succeed in removing the practice of pretending to wave things that don't exist as a means of influencing match officials. If it does, we can return to the good old days when people just shouted and swore at them instead. For the time being, I would suggest that those trying to improve the game should focus on matters of more importance, which would include almost anything else.

When asked for his view on the issue, Stoke City boss Tony Pulis condemned imaginary card-waving and said the FA should seek to outlaw it altogether. He then suggested the following: "Let the referee officiate and decide whether it's a yellow, red card or a fair challenge, and the rest of us get on with it." What they'll be getting on with is the old-fashioned abuse that's the preserve of those who can speak English.


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