Manager Martin O’Neill and leading scorer James McClean could be banned for the last four matches of the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign after Fifa confirmed yesterday it has begun disciplinary proceedings against the pair for criticising the official who refereed the 1-1 draw against Austria in Dublin 10 days ago.
The two men have been given until Friday this week to respond to the charges of misconduct.
O’Neill described Spaniard David Fernández Borbalán as “very poor” in his post-match comments. “I didn’t think we got a decision all day,” the Ireland manager complained. “Any decisions seemed to go their [Austria’s] way.”
McClean was even more outspoken, labelling the referee “Austria’s 12th man” in a television interview shortly after the final whistle.
Under Fifa’s Disciplinary Code (FDC), a suspension of at least four matches is the penalty for unsporting conduct towards a match official. And the fact that the statements of O’Neill and McClean were not made direct to the referee is irrelevant: it’s understood they were noted and communicated by Fifa match commissioner Dane Jost, who enjoys the same status as a referee or linesman and has power to report alleged breaches of the FDC to the governing body.
Earlier this year, Lionel Messi received a four-match ban from international football for insulting the fourth official in a World Cup qualifer in the South America zone. He missed one match before Fifa’s appeal committee overturned the suspension on the grounds of insufficient video evidence of the alleged offence, which the match officials did not report.
In its ruling last month, however, the appeal committee laid down a marker that bodes ill for O’Neill and McClean. It said: “The appeal committee nonetheless underlines the importance of always showing respect to the match officials, stressing that such a principle is essential in football, and any unsporting conduct that may be contrary to the principle of fair play cannot be accepted.”
Whereas Messi’s appeal, lodged by the Argentine Football Federation, was upheld because the video evidence on which the ban was based was deemed inconclusive, there is no ambiguity about the comments of O’Neill and McClean.
“I know in this day and age the slightest wee thing you say about a referee and you get fined but you watched the game, you tell me. They had a 12th man today,” said McClean, scorer of three of Ireland’s eight goals in six matches in Group D.
O’Neill expressed annoyance at the referee’s decision-making in a number of incidents. He described Shane Duffy’s disallowed effort as “a legitimate goal chalked off. So the ref has not been great today for us. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it and I personally think it typified the referee’s performance today.
“He’s let a lot of things go and if that’s the case then you think, ‘Let this go’. If he’s called a foul on Shane Duffy I can’t see it. The goal should have counted. It’s a big call.”
O’Neill also bemoaned the decision not to award Ireland a penalty kick when Jon Walters appeared to be fouled in Austria’s penalty area during a frantic finish to the match.
Regarding Austria’s goal in the first half, O’Neill said: “Their goal for what it’s worth, we still have to defend the corner-kick, but their goal came as a consequence of a hand-ball down the field.”
Fifa’s newly-appointed Disciplinary Committee is chaired by Anin Yeboah, a justice on Ghana’s Supreme Court. If the committee decides that O’Neill and McClean effectively accused the referee of bias, Ireland might enter the autumn qualifiers against Georgia, Serbia, Moldova, and Wales without both their manager and their leading scorer.
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