Tuesday 22 October 2019

No reason for James McClean or Martin O'Neill to be alarmed by FIFA probe

James McClean of Republic of Ireland. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
James McClean of Republic of Ireland. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The suggestion that James McClean and his manager Martin O'Neill could be sidelined for September's double-header with Georgia and Serbia is a headline-grabber that naturally causes alarm.

FIFA have indicated that their disciplinary department are exploring post-match comments from the Irish pair in the aftermath of the contentious 1-1 draw with Austria earlier this month when a late Shane Duffy effort was chalked off and a penalty appeal waved away.

In his RTé interview, McClean said that the Spanish match official David Borbalan was the opposition's '12th man'.

And O'Neill was critical of his overall performance. "The referee wasn't totally to blame for our performance in the first half but I thought he was very poor in the game," said O'Neill. "He seemed to be penalising us a great deal."

FIFA are looking into it, which has led to the interpretation that McClean - a vital player - could be consigned to the stands for one or both of September's key encounters.

O'Neill's comments were nowhere near as serious as the '12th man' jibe but the fact he's on FIFA's radar gave legs to the story that he could be watching from the stands instead of stalking the technical area.

They should have nothing to worry about unless FIFA are prepared to take a different approach to a variety of precedents.

The rap sheet would give the FAI serious grounds for a successful appeal.

Take last September, when Slovakia's Jan Durica ranted to the press after his colleague Martin Skrtel was sent off in a World Cup qualifier with England. He claimed that it was all part of a plan to get the big gun to Russia.

"There is only one place at the World Cup," he said. "Why should Slovakia go there, when we have England in the group? Of course, they will always prefer stronger team. Probably the referee exactly knew how to do it."

His punishment was a fine of €5,000. McClean's outburst is tame in comparison.

Back in 2009, our own Robbie Keane painted a scenario where FIFA chief Sepp Blatter and his UEFA counterpart Michel Platini were 'probably texting each other and delighted with the result' after the hand of Henry affair in Paris.

No sanction came his way, although we of course know that the FAI and FIFA were engaged in a very different kind of correspondence at that point and reached a settlement of €5m later.

In 2012, it did appear that Canada's Christine Sinclair had talked herself into trouble for her comments on her country's Olympic football semi-final defeat to America.

"The ref decided the result before it started," said Sinclair, following a heartbreaking 4-3 reverse. Sinclair's four-match ban was initially reported as punishment for her rant. But it turned out that it was actions towards the official after the final whistle that landed her in hot water.

And that is in keeping with FIFA's general philosophy on these things. The highest profile example this year was Lionel Messi's four-match sanction for verbal abuse of a match official in a fraught encounter with Chile. The referee actually missed it at the time but FIFA took action when replays showed that Messi was swearing at the assistant referee.

It was trial by TV but is of no relevance to McClean's case because it was direct abuse to the face as opposed to later in front of a microphone. After a furore, Messi's punishment was eventually reduced to one on appeal.

McClean has sometimes chosen the wrong time and place to vent his fury but, in this instance, it appears like he went to the right place to highlight his frustration. A knock on the referee's door might have opened up the door to real trouble.

His initial instincts were probably accurate. Before his 12th man comment, he said: "Look, I know in this day and age, the slightest wee thing you say about a referee, you get fined."

That is the likely consequence of this exercise. If O'Neill gets one too, it should be for a smaller amount. He could point to Iranian manager Carlos Queiroz escaping with a warning for going to town on the appointment of the match officials for a game with Uzbekistan last autumn. That posed bigger questions about integrity.

In truth, there is nothing remarkable about O'Neill's take on Barbalan. The Derryman has been critical of officialdom during his time at the helm. He was angry with UEFA for the quick turnaround ahead of the Euro 2016 loss to France.

And there have been other occasions where he has taken aim at the man in the middle. O'Neill was irate with the referee in March's match with Wales that ended with Seamus Coleman being taken away on a stretcher with a broken leg.

He actually ended up clarifying in the days afterwards that he had no problem with how that game was handled.

And he kept his counsel when Neil Taylor was given just a two-match ban by FIFA for the challenge that ruled Coleman out for the rest of the campaign.

In that context, it's surely implausible that McClean or O'Neill could be hit with an identical punishment for interviews where they possibly went over the top.

They have no reason to lose any sleep over it.

Irish Independent

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