If there is one thing about football that does not need to be said, it is that the rules of the game are inconsistently applied. In post match interviews managers, players and pundits are agreed: “All you want is a little bit of consistency”. Recent events have highlighted a particular area of inconsistency that is trivial, infrequent and ultimately very funny. That area is the removal of clothing on the football field.
The issue of players removing their shirts, as a way of celebrating having scored a goal, first reared its head when footballers began wearing t-shirts, under their kit, that bore slogans of a political or religious nature. One of the famous early examples of this in the Premier League occurred in 1997, when Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler displayed a shirt which supported the city’s sacked dock workers. The undershirt also emphasised the letters ‘C’ and ‘K’, from the word ‘dockers’ in a manner which resembled the brand logo of Calvin Klein.
Later concerns spread in the direction of the latter issue as the games governing body became concerned about the possibility of players using such undershirts to promote brands and products, circumnavigating the traditional authorised routes for the commercial sponsorship associated with a football match. FIFA’s response was to strengthen the rule, having previously relaxed it and, for around the last decade, removing or raising your football shirt in such a way has been a mandatory yellow card.
A further reason for the guarantee of a booking was that the sight of a bare chest is apparently offensive to some religions and cultures. Can anyone recall an instance of retrospective action taken against the players that swap shirts at the end of matches? There are many more torsos on display within this activity that is widely tolerated and engaged in throughout the game. This would seem to significantly weaken cultural considerations as a reason for yellow carding a celebrating goal scorer.
The real inconsistency however is brought to light by couple of recent incidents. On August 12th, during Chesterfield’s 2-0 win against Cheltenham Town, Chesterfield winger Gary Roberts raised the bar in this debate. Roberts was not celebrating a goal, it was not a bare chest that he revealed and more than that it was not even Roberts’ own body that was bared.
Roberts was waiting to take a free-kick around 35 yards from goal. The referee was right on top of the ball, and Roberts was one of three Chesterfield players stood over the free-kick. Cheltenham’s Russell Penn came and stood directly next to the ball and as he took a step forward appeared to cheekily back-heel the ball half a yard. Penn was now stood directly in front of the ball, with his back to it, and to Roberts. Seemingly frustrated by the touch on the ball and the attempts to delay the kick, Roberts leant forward and pulled down his opponents shorts.
Penn turned round looking indignant, and in no apparent rush to reinstate the garment to its previous position. The Cheltenham man stood, shorts round his ankles, gesticulating to the referee and explanation of what had happened. Do not take me the wrong way I am not calling for Gary Roberts to be booked in this situation, although it is strange, by comparison, that there is no religious or cultural objection to this behaviour. I am just pointing out that you can apparently reveal significantly more than an undershirt without getting cautioned.
Or can you? Less than a week after Gary Roberts exposed Russell Penn to the watching world, a non-league footballer found himself sent off, during his debut, for providing the referee with a similar view of himself, as Mike Bull, who refereed the Chesterfield game got of Penn.
Louis Blake, aged 21, took to the field for Croydon Athletic, as a 66th minute substitute against Colliers Wood in an FA Cup qualifying game. Blake had been on the field for 20 minutes before the referee spotted his heinous crime. Blake had taken to the field wearing black-under shorts whilst Croydon wear maroon. In fairness to the referee, albeit with four minutes to go, the FA are very clear on their rules on this subject. To the letter of the law, the official was right to ask Blake to leave the field and change his underwear.
The problem was Blake did not have a change of underwear, and states he advised the referee of the fact. The player maintains the referee asserted that the undershorts were to be removed anyway. Upon returning to the pitch the referee asked Blake to prove that he had removed the garment in question. Blake unquestionably proved he was not wearing the undershorts and was immediately shown a red card for his trouble.
According to quotes from the Croydon Advertiser Blake was “gobsmacked”, stating he “just pulled his shorts forward a bit to show him there was nothing there”. The player justifiably asks:
“How else am I meant to prove I’ve got nothing on down there?” If you have a good answer tweet it to @rjb81media1 – The winner gets a pair of maroon undershorts.
So in summary football players with their shirts off are always offensive after scoring a goal but not while swapping clothes after a match. Footballers with their shorts off in front of the referee are inoffensive if someone else did it, and no-one should be punished.
On the other hand, if the referee asks to have a look, and you oblige, you will get sent off. Jimmy Greaves was right; it is a funny old game.