Cast your mind back to June the 11th, Bukayo Saka is motoring away down England’s right-hand side with only green grass between him and Gianluigi Donnaruma – or it would have been if not for the strong hand of Giorgio Chiellini grabbing his Three Lions jersey.
The image went viral, the wise old Italian yanking Saka into the air, like a hard-nosed 1950s copper impeding some young oik who’s just ransacked the local sweet shop.
For any football fan, it’s a common sight; a promising move or counter-attack being cynically stopped by an opponent engaging in some classical tactical fouling.
Casual football watchers were aghast, they’d just witnessed GBH live on their TV screens. But your more grizzled footballer spectator had no choice but to roll their eyes and groan – they have seen it all before.
We’ve been hardwired to accept this is just part of the game. It’s deemed as being clever or streetwise.
But purposefully stopping an opponent’s attack, with no intention of winning the ball, aware your harshest punishment is a yellow card (if the ref is feeling strict that day), isn’t that acting dishonestly to gain an unfair advantage? That sounds like cheating and we hate cheating don’t we?
That’s where things become less black and white and are a much murkier shade of grey. Ask any Italian what they thought of Chiellini’s challenge and I bet you it will be “Molto bene!” Put yourself in their shoes: Federico Chiesa is haring towards Jordan Pickford’s goal, out of nowhere, Harry Maguire comes in and scythes him down, the chance is gone, and with it so is the danger. There’s a high chance there would be beer dripping from the ceiling in celebration. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then cheating is in the eye of the chastened.
The issue is twofold: refs aren’t willing to dish out stronger punishments for persistent or cynical fouling, as they don’t want to ruin the spectacle. As football has become a product, it feels like the spectacle outweighs the rules. And you have to sympathise with them, they’re between a rock and a hard place.
Could we perhaps give them new tools to fight this problem? Perhaps borrowing the sin-bin from rugby? Or even better, how about basketball’s foul-out system? If you commit 6 fouls no matter how minor then you’re fouled out. With this rule in place, Fernandinho might face punishment, rather than racking up his usual 12 fouls unbooked.
The likelihood of meaningful rule change in football is fanciful; we can hope though. But can cheating ever be acceptable in sport? I suppose it depends who you ask.