Sunday 25 August 2019

Teams playing badly are entitled to the same justice as teams playing well

The Couch

Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri. Photo: Reuters
Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri. Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

Iain Dowie was first in with the Alpine metaphors when asked about Northern Ireland getting a win in Switzerland this evening.

"A huge undertaking," said the former blond bombshell of West Ham, Southampton and Luton Town. "We're talking about climbing the north face of the Eiger. If we can go there and win in Basel, that will be one of the biggest shocks in world football."

The big man was still in a bit of shock himself when he uttered those words. It was Thursday night, some 20 minutes after the game had ended 0-1 at Windsor Park, and like everyone else he was mystified by the penalty decision that changed everything.

Corry Evans had blocked a shot with his shoulder on 57 minutes; the Romanian referee saw it as a handball. Switzerland as a result have one foot in next year's World Cup finals. The second leg today is expected to be a formality, despite the slender scoreline margin between them. It is expected to be so because on Thursday there was a gulf between them in quality.

And when one team is patently superior, it has the effect of softening any sense of injustice. "We were robbed," said one NI supporter afterwards, "but we were also awful." She was sanguine about the penalty because her team hadn't been good enough anyway.

All through the game if felt as if a Swiss goal was coming. They'd created a series of good chances and strong half-chances. "We controlled the game," said their scheming midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, "we had a lot of ball possession, we played much better than Northern Ireland and I think we deserve to win today."

The culture of sport is one of militant meritocracy. Hard analysis of one's own performance is the order of the day. The first rule is to blame yourself before you blame anyone else. Excuses are spurned because they are a form of denial, a way of avoiding responsibility for your own failings. Therefore, if you haven't performed, you don't get much sympathy for the misfortune that's befallen you.

Jonny Evans, Corry's brother and international team-mate, felt the penalty decision was a worse injustice than the infamous Thierry Henry debacle of 2009. But the Republic of Ireland had played well that night, which made it seem all the more cruel on them. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair, they deserved better than that.

This is how the sporting culture weighs up the wheel of fortune. Your first obligation is to control the controllables as far as possible yourself. If you've done that, and you're suckered by a rank bad refereeing decision, then it's a genuine case of tough luck - sorry for your troubles. But if you haven't, then even your legitimate grievances have a short shelf life.

We're talking about the court of public opinion here because of course the result is not going to change anyway, no matter how much or how little you have done to avoid the ill-fated outcome. But public opinion still counts for something and in sport it can often be a rough judge. Because if a wrong has been inflicted by a third party, in this case the referee, then the circumstances surrounding it shouldn't matter at all. It is still wrong. A team that is playing badly is as equally entitled to fairness as a team that's playing well.

This is particularly pertinent in soccer where the scoring system routinely evens the odds between mismatched performers. In no other field sport is it harder to convert possession into goals, dominance into victories. So even though it looked like a Swiss goal was coming, the fact remains that it still hadn't come by the time Ovidiu Hategan blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.

And Northern Ireland, though they'd been emphatically outclassed, were hanging in valiantly by dint of work rate and unity and emotional support from a vibrant Windsor Park. This "sheer dogged determination," said Gerry Taggart, Dowie's fellow pundit and former NI colleague, "in itself was worth a nil-nil (result)."

This was obviously stretching the argument. They could easily have been two or three goals down before Hategan intervened. And when Ricardo Rodriguez converted the penalty, a 0-1 lead for Switzerland did not seem like an injustice at all. But it did feel like the home side had been cheated. It felt like justice and injustice all wrapped up in the one moment.

Shaqiri's post-match comments presumably reflected what the Swiss squad believed: they deserved to win because they were the better team by far. What's more, there was still over 30 minutes to play. If the referee hadn't given them a helping hand, they'd have helped themselves before the night was out. They were playing the game in the right way, they would surely take one of the chances they were creating.

Michael O'Neill was an impressive picture of dignified hurt afterwards. The Northern Ireland manager held onto his composure while calmly describing the decision as "staggering", "incredible" and "bewildering". The players back in the dressing room were "angry" but they would channel that anger into the second leg.

Which is one good reason why they shouldn't quite be written off today. They have nothing to lose now and team spirit will be galvanised by the sense of injustice. But the climb today will still be vertiginous. The Eiger awaits; Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn too.

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