The referee missed it at the time, but Diego Costa was never going to get away with it, of course. Soccer players never get away with anything any more.
Hence the Chelsea striker’s three-match ban, meted out on Friday for his stamp on Liverpool’s Emre Can during Tuesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final. Had the English FA chosen to ignore the persuasive video evidence, Costa had already been convicted in the court of public opinion, via Sky Sports’ analysts, an indignant media, a seething mass of tweets, vines and memes.
Top players are now tracked and analyzed to an extent that even the NSA might consider a little bit intrusive. Their every move on the field is followed by multiple high-definition cameras, their utterances recorded by ultra-sensitive microphones. Whether shopping or partying, they have zero privacy in their personal lives thanks to our cameraphone era and the voracious, prurient interest of well-funded media outlets.
Every single action players perform on the field is logged by data companies such as Opta. Their employers are constantly testing their physical and (often) mental health, controlling their diets, their social lives, their bedtimes. Really, it’s only a matter of time before they all get microchipped.
One Friday> night in 2018, 11:37 p.m., an alarm will sound on QPR boss Harry Redknapp’s phone, waking him. The screen will show a map of London’s West End with a blinking dot moving towards the Soho district.
REDKNAPP: Faaakin’ell! Taarabt’s goin’ to that bleedin’ karaoke bar again? On the night before we play Rochdale? Geezer’s a proper mug [clicks “dispatch security” icon. Ten minutes later, the dot vanishes, chillingly].
And then, alleged misconduct is examined behind closed doors during private disciplinary proceedings, typically with only a terse and perfunctory public statement on the findings. All in all, it’s about time FOX Sports signed up Edward Snowden as an analyst via video link from Russia.
SNOWDEN: The FA’s disciplinary procedures show a disturbing lack of transparency and accountability, amid soccer’s culture of mass surveillance. They are exercising ill-defined, secretive executive powers without proper oversight. It’s a threat to democracy.
WARREN BARTON: Mourinho and the boy Costa will be disappointed with the ban, to be fair. But you just can’t do that and expect to get away with it in this day and age.
(In other disciplinary news this week, the FA fined Jose Mourinho about $38,000 for making critical comments to the media after a game against Southampton, because in professional sports, saying what you think is often “improper conduct.” You say “I have a democratic right to free speech”; they say, “you’re bringing the game into disrepute. You owe us money.”)
While the English governing body has done a commendable job speeding up its proceedings, meaning verdicts are now delivered by the soccer justice equivalent of Amazon Prime, the whole system is still fundamentally opaque. That makes it outmoded in today’s media and technology climate. Everything about soccer now is set up to be examined, discussed and viewed, live or seconds later, around the globe.
It’s hugely democratizing. If something notable’s happened in a big game, we don’t have to get the information second-hand, filtered through a journalist’s take in the traditional media. We can judge for ourselves via images posted on the internet by rights-holders or fans with smartphones. Everyone in soccer is now accountable for every action, all the time. Everyone sees everything. It’s sort of like an Orwellian nightmare, with Gary Neville.
Except, when it comes to the trial and punishment phase, we’re shut out. We’re blind. For us, there is no courtroom drama, no legal reality TV. It’s a strange omission considering the importance of the principle of transparency in sports governance, and since soccer is fueled by television money.
Surely, broadcasters would relish the chance to show footage of Costa and Mourinho on trial, mounting impassioned defenses of their behavior as they are grilled by grizzled FA prosecutors. It’d make for much better rolling news material than flashing up a few lines of text from the judgment, or a bland club statement.
Privacy is also doing fans a disservice considering the importance of the outcomes. Costa’s now going to miss three Chelsea matches, including Saturday’s top-of-the-EPL clash with Manchester City. His absence might play a small part in deciding the destiny of the title. Everyone (Chelsea’s cancelation of Mourinho’s regular press conference aside) is taking about it – except the folks who actually meted out the decision, and the man found guilty.
The Costa debate is being carried towards Saturday’s match by a strong convection current of hot air, when if we’d been able to see and hear the disciplinary panel come to their conclusions, and observe Chelsea’s defense of the charge, there might have been more factual substance to inform the frothing punditry.
In short, it’s time for soccer’s disciplinary proceedings to go the full O.J. It’s time for televised trials. We need the FA to do whatever it takes to get Judge Lance Ito to relocate to London. We need news helicopters tracking the cars of accused players as they arrive at Wembley Stadium for their hearings. We deserve to see soccer’s greatest legal minds in action, conjuring spellbinding defenses every bit as thrilling as a last-ditch tackle.
Let’s push for reform in the name of democracy, transparency, justice and entertainment. One day in this now, boot-tossing frontier we’re approaching, we could even here a twist on the signature ling of Simpson’s lawyer, the late, great Johnnie Cochran: “If the cleats don’t fit – you must acquit.”