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What does it mean to have ‘got the ball’ in football these days?

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It was leaked from the Scotland camp prior to the game that he, along with Rangers’ John Souttar, would be the two members of the provisional unit who would not make the 26-man squad for Euro 2024 – A story which was confirmed after full time. Considering he is 41 years old, this likely means last week’s cameo will be his 75th and final appearance for Scotland. The fans knew this and responded with a rousing reception as he took to the field.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the ideal send off from that point forward. Scotland’s concentration levels seemed to wane a little bit as the contest became something more of a testimonial. They then proceeded to throw away a 2-0 lead to draw their final warm-up encounter 2-2. There was enough in the 90 minutes to feel encouraged about our chances of making a mark in Germany, though it wasn’t the ideal way to say goodbye to fans on home soil. Gordon played his part in this collapse, giving away a penalty which was converted by Oliver Antman (who disappointingly looked nothing like Paul Rudd) from 12 yards. Whether Gordon deserved the blame for the concession of that penalty was something which was debated in the aftermath.

Michael Stewart, co-commentator for Premier Sports’ coverage of the game, offered his instant analysis, believing it not to be a foul. His opinion was backed up by pundits Alan Hutton, Lyndon Dykes and even manager Steve Clarke when he joined the trio, and presenter Emma Dodds, for his post-match interview. The crux of the argument centred around Gordon playing the ball before he collided with Finnish youngster Tomas Galvez. 

It’s certainly true that the veteran custodian made contact with the ball before man, but there was a lot more contact with Galvez at high speed. That was enough to convince Polish referee Lukasz Kuzma to give a penalty, which was then backed up by the VAR officials.

It may be a case of us looking longingly at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but it certainly feels like how we judged fouls in football used to be a lot simpler and the process more agreeable. ‘Did he play the ball first? Ok, play on!’ was essentially what it came down to. There were some exceptions, of course, but generally that’s how things used to be. But they’ve not been like that for a long while and it’s maybe about time we all made peace with that.

It may surprise some of you to know that “playing the ball” isn’t something which appears at all within the Laws of the Game when it comes to the section on fouls and misconduct. Fouls are judged on whether players are “careless” or “reckless” (or “use excessive force” for red cards) when coming into contact with the opposition. Playing the ball is still a very important factor. If you listen to referees on the EPL’s VAR audio recordings, for example, they often talk about it. It’s one of the best ways to establish whether a player has managed to regain possession cleanly, but it is not the be all and end all. Yet fans, and players and managers going on Friday’s evidence, still look at it through this lens.

The popular belief seems to be that football would be a better sport if the judgement for a foul or yellow/red card was simply “did he touch the ball before the man?” and more aggressive challenges were permitted, like they once were. But is that actually what we want from the sport in 2024? The game has favoured attackers as the years have gone on and, ultimately, isn’t that what we want? More skill, more flair, more goals? You just have to look at the wild, high-scoring affairs which have populated the latter stages of the Champions League in recent years. The finals themselves have certainly improved on the whole after it felt like 30 years went without there being an entertaining encounter as the tension of the occasion turned it into a war of attrition. 

Artistic expression has been allowed to flourish. No longer can a hatchet man go out to remove the opponents’ best player from the game, either emotionally through intimidation or physically through brute force. Careers of the naturally gifted are more safeguarded than ever, and that’s surely a good thing. You want to reward those who get the crowd off their feet, not those who make a career out of kicking them.

You often hear complaints (mainly from Old Firm fans because they’re never happy unless they’re greetin’ about something) that in Scottish football we’re still too rough-and-tumble for the modern era. This style, some would argue, doesn’t allow our players to develop and become better technically. It’s not an argument this writer personally agrees with as Scottish football’s own idiosyncrasies deserve their place, and it would be boring if every league was the same, but it does show attitudes are changing. Although, saying that, you know most of those fans are bemoaning the fact you can’t tackle any more when it’s their player on the wrong end of the referee’s discipline.

Furthermore, there’s the increased risk of injury to think about. Football used to be a slower game. In the age of sports science, players have become bigger, stronger and faster, but the strength of our bones and ligaments have not. Therefore a blood-and-thunder challenge will likely do a lot more damage now than it did in the 1980s.

Regardless of whether you believe football is better or worse for this evolution, it doesn’t change how the game is refereed in the present day. Gordon made significantly more contact with the man than the ball, which just clipped his wrist as he misjudged his punch. Instead, walloped Galvez and sent him flying. Therefore, it was a penalty and the correct decision was given.

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