The Dark Arts

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar July 13, 2019 20:41


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The Dark Arts

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By Satish Sekar in Cairo © Satish Sekar (July 13th 2019)


June 25th 1982, ‘The Disgrace of Gijón’ robbed Algeria of the chance to progress as eventual finalists, West Germany, and Austria, knowing the result that suited both, as Chile and Algeria had played earlier, inflicted a borefest on spectators to ensure that both progressed to the second round at the expense of the Desert Foxes.

It was one of the worst acts of unsporting conduct in any sport. It led to the last matches in group stages being played at the same time.

Fast forward just over 37 years to July 11th 2019, another shameful act of cheating occurs. This time the perpetrator was an Algerian defender Rami Bensebaini. His act – dark arts at their worst – looks set to go unpunished. Booked for a previous incident with Wilfried Zaha, Bensebaini grabbed Zaha’s hand and slapped himself in the face with it. He then fell over, clutching his face, as if hit by Muhammad Ali in his prime.

A blatant act of cheating – it’s sad to see the victims of the Disgrace of Gijón practicing such dark arts. It’s sadder still that this is defended as part of the game, or the responsibility of the referee, or VAR, and that Algeria’s coach Jamal Belmadi took umbrage when a Nigerian journalist asked about the incident.

Bensebaini clearly intended to get Zaha sent off. It was a deliberate act of cheating. The Ethiopian referee, Bamlak Tessema didn’t see the incident, and nor did his assistants, Waleed Ali and Olivier Safari. Fourth official Victor Gomes did not intervene, and nor did the VAR team, led by Bakary Gassama.

It caused a Twitter storm yesterday, and featured in the pre-match press conferences, with more ducking (of the questions) than opponents of Ali in his prime.

Nigerian Response

The video has circulated on social media. Nevertheless, the Super Eagles’ coach, Gernot Rohr, wasn’t aware of the incident, and wasn’t greatly interested in it.

“We didn’t see that,” Rohr said.

“We watched the tactical situations of the match together already with our team and we will continue again today in meetings to analyse tactical things, and not this kind of incidents what you are speaking about.

“In each match if you watch all, you can find things that are not so nice, but it’s not interesting for us.

“What we have to see is how they are playing and how we can do beat this team.”

Exactly, but the question also included what CAF should do about this incident. 2013 AFCON winner Kenneth Onemuro was guarded about it.

“To be honest, I haven’t seen the video,” Onemuro said.

“I’m sure there is VAR, so if such a thing happens, I’m sure the referees will see it and make the best decision.”

Missing the Point

And that’s the point, all the officials, including the VAR officials, missed it. Bensebaini tried to get an opponent sent off by a deliberate act of cheating, and looks set to evade sanction as all the officials missed it.

What does that say about the quality of officiating, and what did the review of their performance say?

Onemuro was unfazed.

“One thing my coach has said over and over again is no fouls, especially around the box, because we’ve had two goals from these free-kicks, and they’re just easy free-kicks, so I think the best way is to stay focused, stay switched on” he said.

“They are quick. They are quick players, we know, and we are also quick as well, so we have to be very quick and make sure there is no contact, especially around the 18-yard box.”

Onemuro didn’t seem overly concerned about Bensebaini’s antics.

“It’s football,” Onemuro told journalists. “It happens everywhere.”

“It’s players, attackers, they try to change this. They try to fall down to get fouls, but the best way, the best way is to stay smart, and think ahead before then.”

An Alternative Perspective

Nigeria earned their Super Eagles tag by winning the Africa Cup of Nations title in 1980. They beat tomorrow’s opponents, Algeria, 3-0 to clinch the first of their three titles to date. Olusegun Odegbami, known as Mathematical, was the joint top-scorer in that tournament, and is recognised as one of the best players Nigeria ever produced. He has been observing this AFCON from afar.

“Many things unseen to referees happen during every football match between the players, off and on the ball,” the Nigerian legend said.

“The rule is: Don’t get caught.”

But that is easier said than done. With various technologies: VAR, mobile phone-cameras, and social media, very little goes unnoticed now. Someone, somewhere will notice and in the social media age, it will be made available for all to see.

Bensebaini is the latest to hope the officials see him prone, but not what caused it, and be caught, not by the officials or VAR, but by social media.

“The VAR can be helpful, particularly since it establishes a line of communication with the ref when it sees what the ref does not,” Odegbami said.

But VAR cannot help if nobody notices the incident in the first place, and that is what happened in this case.

“Unfortunately, unless the incident is so obviously significant that it impacts the result of the match, there is little that can be done beyond the game,” Odegbami opined.

But this was. The match went to penalties, and one side or the other should have been reduced to ten men. If Bensebaini got the reaction he wanted from the officials Zaha would have been sent off for violent conduct. And if, Bensebaini’s skulduggery had been noted, then he would have received a yellow card for simulation or ungentlemanly conduct, and that would have been his second, leaving his team a man short.

However, Odegbami sounds a charitable note.

“This is a one-off but bad incident,” he said, “but I would not think it is a design against a whole country.”

Not the Place

Meanwhile, the Algerian reaction to it was eye-opening. “I’m not really sure that is the place to talk about this,” coach Jamal Belmadi said.

“If you try to put pressure on us, it’s not the right way. Try to win the other way, not this way – not good. There is ref for that. There is the VAR for that and it’s not your job to talk about this.”

Astonishingly, Belmadi was applauded by some journalists.

So where is the place to talk about this?

A shameful piece of play-acting with cynical intent occurred. What are the responsibilities of the player, his team, the officials and CAF to ensure that conduct is gentlemanly, as required by the rules of the game?

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar July 13, 2019 20:41