It’s Saturday afternoon at the home of the Baggies, and West Brom are on for a much-needed victory in their quest for Premier League survival.
Towards the end of the match, there is a fairly innocuous looking tussle between their forward Jay Rodriguez and the Brighton defender, Gaetan Bong.
It leads to an incident that may bring disciplinary proceedings for Rodriguez and could have far-reaching ripples leading all the way to Fifa’s front door.
If that sounds like a gross overstatement, then let me give the incident some context and please bear with me if I sound like a rampaging Joey Barton critiquing a kids Sunday football match, because Barcelona and West Brom aren’t usually referenced together in the same column inches.
About two months ago, I was watching Barcelona hammer some team in yellow two dozen nil when the camera panned to Lionel Messi and Gerrard Pique remonstrating with the referee at the final whistle.
It could only have been the decision to disallow Messi’s 18th goal of the game that upset the Catalans, given the ease of their victory at the Camp Nou and the smiles that were revealed as they walked towards the tunnel.
What annoyed me was that Messi, Pique, and the referee were all holding court in the centre circle with their hands covering their mouths.
In Spain — within which Catalonia remains a part — the media have been using lip readers for years to plant players on the back page under incriminating and suggestive headlines. We don’t really go in for all that in England.
If we’re going to hang a player we do it properly, straight on the front page with a picture of the girl in question. After all, our press has standards to uphold.
At the time of the Barcelona incident I tweeted that players should not be allowed to hold their hands over their mouths and neither should referees. For many reasons. For one thing it undermines the game.
It allows players to influence the referee without scrutiny from above. It allows the referee to cosy up to influential players such as Messi who are able to exert that influence to form a relationship with the referee without anybody else realising.
But the biggest problem that I can see is that when players hold their hands over their mouths they are immediately subject to interpretation and suspicion.
They put themselves at the mercy of anybody that wants to put words in their mouth. Not from the stands, because for the most part we can’t hear what the players are saying to each other, but from other players around them.
The incident at the Hawthorns on Saturday is a perfect case in point.
The altercation between the players saw Rodriguez put his hand over his mouth while appearing to say something to Gaaten Bong.
At the same time Rodriguez used his other hand to pretend to waft away a nasty smell from under his nose that he seemed to suggest was coming from Bong’s direction.
Bong immediately indicated to the referee that Rodriguez had said something that he shouldn’t have. What was it?
I’ll make an educated guess but the truth is nobody, apart from the two players, will ever know for sure, because Rodriguez covered his mouth. Get out of that one. My word against your word does not hold much sway in a court, I’m afraid.
It looks bad. Very bad. And that is another reason for outlawing this ridiculous practice that has crept into the game.
But what about the lip readers, I see you mime? It’s simple. Like my mum used to say to me: if you can’t say anything nice, then shut up.
Players out on the pitch do not suddenly develop Tourette’s syndrome in heated moments. They are, contrary to what you might think, perfectly capable of biting their tongue.
Having played for a few years and come across plenty of characters, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that Jay Rodriguez’s actions were a variation on an age-old sledging theme of getting close to a player during an altercation and then recoiling sharply to suggest that the player has bad breath.
Yes, bad breath. I have seen it in every season that I played football. I have seen it from teammates and I have had it done to me.
In my defence, I am an enthusiastic brusher and I’m fairly certain that the practice probably existed even before I played. In fact, you can actually see Robbie Savage doing it to an opponent on YouTube. And the footage is in colour. Bonus.
Now, Rodriguez may not have been alluding to Bong’s dental hygiene at all. He may very well have said something altogether more sinister. It is also possible Gaetan Bong misheard Rodriguez because the West Brom man’s voice was muffled by his own hand.
We’ll never know. And that’s the point. All we have is interpretation, and unless you have OJ’s lawyer, then interpretation can be a wholly
unreliable source of answers.
Can you see the trouble that this causes? I’m only surprised an incident like this hasn’t occurred sooner. But I’m not surprised that Fifa didn’t even think about it, even if they’ll have to now.
The allegation made against Rodriguez by Gaetan Bong is now being investigated by the FA having been included in the referee’s match report.
I derive no pleasure from predicting this last year, by the way.
As I’ll have chipped into my gravestone when I eventually shuffle off this confused and misunderstood world: “I bloody knew this would happen!”
No room for interpretation. Just as it should be.
Our man inside the game predicted problems with football’s cover-ups