Last Friday, Estonia hosted the Republic of Ireland in European football at the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn and was defeated 0-4.
I’ve never held chronic complainers in esteem. There’s an Estonian homily disparaging those who squawk after a fight, for it isn’t high class to “flail about with your arms after a slugfest.” As a counterpoint, I’ve always felt one of the reasons for the existence of journalism is to draw attention to injustice.
And indeed, something fishy went down at the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn on Friday as we met the Irish. A multitude of calls, several of them dubious, were made by chief referee Viktor Kassai to the detriment of Estonia. I’m not sure if Kassai set a world record for issuing penalties with his yellow and red flags, but it sure looked that way to the Estonian TV commentators and to the man in the street.
At the 77th minute, after a number of yellow and red penalty cards had already been shown to the Estonian team, some for cause and others unearned, Irish skipper Robbie Keane ran into Estonian captain Raio Piiroja from behind, at which point Piiroja’s hand came into contact with the ball. Football rules are clear about handball incidents. After the ball came into contact with Piiroja, Keane gesticulated wildly for a penalty, but what should have mattered was evidence of evil intent on Piiroja's part.
Mr. Kassai left Ireland unpunished on at least a couple of occasions when he might or should have. To add insult to injury, the head referee showed Estonia’s goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko a yellow card when Pareiko had the gall, feeling cumulatively aggrieved, to start protesting the five yellow penalties Kassai had previously imposed on Estonia, thereby barring Pareiko from being present at the deciding match in Dublin in a few days time.
We were ridden over roughshod by Kassai and his referee colleagues on November 11. This is a time to protest.
Fast Rewind to the So-Called 'Hand of Gaul' Scandal
For those who don’t follow football closely, an injustice took place in Paris on November 18, 2009, during the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Second Round of qualification playoffs for the 2010 world governing body (FIFA) World Cup. The teams that met that night were France and the Republic of Ireland.
After the game, French captain Thierry Henry admitted to Irish defender Richard Dunne he’d illegally handled the ball just prior to the match-winning goal. Though the game finished in a draw, France advanced to the finals and not Ireland. All hell broke loose, with calls from the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the Irish Government to FIFA for the game to be replayed, but to no avail. Ireland hasn’t made outstanding progress in football for some time during recent years, and the injustice suffered in Paris took on the epic proportions of the “martyrdom of Ireland.” Henry’s reputation suffered, for - despite his apologies - he also stated afterwards that the onus was on the referees.
The incident began to be compared to Diego Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal. Swedish referee Martin Hansson broke down crying, considered quitting, and a documentary film was made about the mess. TIME magazine put together a list of top ten sporting cheats and included Thierry Henry on it.
What’s at Stake
A lot rides on the outcome of Tuesday’s second match between Estonia and Ireland, starting with who gets to advance to next summer’s UEFA European Championship, commonly referred to as Euro 2012 or the Euro Cup.
I don’t know about the salary of Estonian coach Tarmo Rüütli. He probably does what he does primarily as a labor of love, though Cathal Dervan of the Irish Independent portrays him as a rube who struggles “to understand the meaning of the word underdog.”
Rüütli’s counterpart on the Irish side - manager Giovanni Trapattoni - receives 1 million euros a year or more. Irish businessman Denis O'Brien pays much of that, and is said by the Irish media to not be keen on renewal if their team were to fail to qualify.
What’s at stake for “Trap” personally is whether he goes down in history as a hero or a has-been old geezer. Irish Assistant Manager Marco Tardelli told his players last week they could be preparing for the most important games of their lives.
Thanks to calls by referee Kassai on Friday, some kosher and others downright wrong or very heavy-handed, Estonia’s team was reduced in size from 11 players to 10 to nine as the evening wore on. What’s worse, Estonia will go to Dublin minus three of her strongest players, including the team captain.
Although it almost seems to be over now except for the crying, the issue will nonetheless be decided on the pitch mano a mano.
Tardelli may say “It’s important to qualify because the players need a boost as well in terms of new contracts and visibility,” but let’s not forget: FIFA pays princely sums to all who make the grade for the playoffs. We live in the era of commoditization, not "Chariots of Fire."
Each of the finalists making it to the UEFA Euro 2012 final tournament will receive 8 million euros, plus large performance bonuses in Poland and the Ukraine per win, and a bonus of 1 million per third placed team in the group. The quarter-finalists will each receive 2 million euros, the semi-finalists 3 million, the runners-up 4.5 million and the winners 7.5 million. A total of 196 million euros will be distributed, up from 184 million in 2008.
Are the Irish Being Compensated for Paris 2009?
Before Friday’s game, Liam Mackey of the Irish Examiner made it as plain as possible, writing of the “Hand of history on shoulder of referee Kassai.” Mackey quoted Irish manager Trapattoni, who spoke at a pre-game press conference in Tallinn: "You can play well and still lose the game to an error or a penalty or a referee’s mistake.”
Trapattoni deftly evaded Liam Mackey’s question: “Do you think the controversy surrounding Ireland’s last play-off would make it less likely that a significant refereeing error would decide this one?” Trap answered: “referees can make mistakes,” but also deadpanned: "I never think about the referee."
Mr. Mackey was left to answer his own question: “So, for all Trap’s studied reserve on the subject, perhaps it’s just possible that Mr Kassai will feel a certain hand of history on his shoulder when he blows the whistle on Estonia versus Ireland in Tallinn tonight.”
Armenia, Estonia, and the Short End of the Stick
Last month, Armenia’s Football Association filed a protest with UEFA over the refereeing in their Euro 2012 qualifying defeat to Ireland. Armenia needed to win their final Group B qualifier to finish second and make the playoffs, but lost 2-1 after their goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky was sent off by the Spanish referee Eduardo Gonzalez after 26 minutes.
Berezovsky was dismissed for handball outside his area, but viewings of replays showed he actually chested the ball clear. Armenian FA head Ruben Airapetyan said at the time that Armenia wants UEFA to cancel Berezovsky’s red card rather than punish the referee.
Several Irish and UK newspapers reported: digital recordings show that “the referee allowed play to continue after it appeared the Ireland striker Simon Cox handled the ball” moments before Berezovsky was claimed to have done so. The Guardian included this comment: “It was a shocking piece of skulduggery compounded by the majority of the Irish team calling for the keeper to be sent off. After the Thierry Henry affair, I know how much we Irishmen hate injustice."
Airapetyan dismissed the conspiracy theories of some Armenian fans who suggested UEFA was trying to give Ireland an advantage in order to balance out the infamous handball by Henry that cost the Irish players the chance of reaching the 2010 World Cup finals.
Of Motes and Beams in the Eyes of Beholders
The Irish media, so quick to protest injustice done to them in 2009, are now silent. To pick up on the sense that Kassai was unjust to Estonia in Tallinn, and even over the top, you have to view replays of the Nov. 11 match, check out videos that are circulating on YouTube, or delve very deep into the commentaries within the Irish blogosphere. It also helps if you understand Estonian, for upon that stricken multitude, grim melancholy sits - along with the slightest smidgen of hope.
Barry Glendenning of The Guardian wrote during his live online coverage of the November 11 game: “ANOTHER RED CARD! Estonia are now down to nine men, rather unfairly, it must be said. Their skipper Raio Piiroja picks up his second yellow card in a few minutes for... absolutely nothing that I could see.”
Here a couple of the more fair-minded commentaries from deep within the confines of the Irish online media: “I think our new 'socialist' president should invite the ref on a state visit by way of thanks for all he gave the Irish team last night. Evidently the ref decided if in doubt give Ireland the advantage. Without a doubt this was part of a wider payback strategy from UEFA/FIFA.” Also: “I think in the spirit of fairness we should offer (the Estonians) a replay. It’s what we wanted after some poor refereeing so only fair.” As you can see, chivalry is not fully dead in Ireland.
Several Wrongs Do Not Make a Right
I long ago stopped believing that the world is fair at its core. Neither do I believe that bad or unjust persons usually get their comeuppance. Tibetans may believe in karma, but it doesn’t seem to work to their benefit in real life.
Let’s keep two things separate here - one thing is the ability of two teams (Ireland and Estonia) and the other is the requirement that UEFA rules be applied consistently across the board.
The West has lectured Eastern Europe to no end about the need for “a level playing field,” mostly so that Western corporations can gain access to the markets of battered Central and Eastern Europe. The mantra is also religiously invoked in respect to black market and corruption problems, and when elections roll around. The playing fields that seem to not be fully level are the very football pitches in Yerevan and Tallinn, and that through no fault of the locals! It is in the West that something appears to be rotten this time.
With no disloyalty intended, I’m fairly sure Ireland is so strong it stands a powerful chance of beating Estonia without Kassai having had to tie one of Estonia’s hands behind its back. Reader Katie sent a comment to my “Letter from Estonia” blog: “I would like to see teams beat each other out of complete strength and athleticism [rather] than deal with these bad referee calls and possible favoritism.”
Estonia should officially challenge some of those yellow cards, and I hope God has endowed Kassai with a conscience in order for him to endure some pangs.
Estonian captain Piiroja said right after Friday's contest that the Estonian team should be blaming itself, and not the referee. If the Irish sports public is capable of empathy, it too would want Ireland to have won on Friday purely on the basis of merit and not because Viktor Kassai, "feeling the heavy hand of history on his shoulder," might be trying to compensate an old wrong by compounding it at the expense of Estonia and Armenia, who deserve injustice no more than Ireland.
Jüri Estam is a Tallinn-based communications consultant, bilingual writer and Estonian-English translator.