After his Galaxy had lost a rather tedious Pan-Pacific final to the Koreans of Suwong Samsung, Bruce Arena gave his opinion of the red card given to Galaxy defender Sean Franklin. He was terse: "I didn't see the play, whether he showed studs or not or whatever ... I don't know."
Fair enough. Arena is certainly not the first coach who failed to see a foul by one of his own players. He didn't see the play, so obviously he cannot have an opinion. But even when coaches -- and players and fans and journalists -- do see the play, even when they've seen the replay, even when they've re-run the replay, even then, there are going to be plenty of them who do not see the foul.
Yesterday in an EPL game Newcastle's Kevin Nolan got himself red-carded for a foul -- a tackle that I have seen variously described as "violent" and "a horror." An opinion not shared by all, it seems (I have no opinion on this one -- I didn't see the game). On the BBC's live EPL website, a text message was received: "Anyone that knows how to play football will realize that Nolan actually intended on shielding the ball and was just unfortunate."
Possibly that was a Newcastle fan, showing his home-team bias, maybe not. Such bias was to be heard over the weekend from players -- top players, too. Barcelona's Xavi and Lionel Messi both blamed the referee for their loss to Espanyol, citing his ejection of Seydou Keita as the reason for their problems. This one I did see. I assume the referee was acting under the official Rule 12 interpretation that "A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play." And serious foul play means an automatic red card.
Well, Keita launched himself full speed at Moises, feet first. The tackle was ill-timed. Keita arrived after the ball had gone, and comprehensively crunched into Moises' legs, bringing him heavily down. Careless? Reckless? Definitely. Endangering an opponent? I would say so. But Messi and Xavi saw it differently. Because they are Barca players, of course.
That's the difficulty with fouls. You see what you want to see. Except that the referee -- and journalists -- are supposed to be objective. But of course, they're not -- they can't be, not all the time. It's asking too much.
Referees far too frequently ignore defensive fouls because they don't like having to give a penalty kick. And journalists? Actually I'm thinking more of television commentators -- particularly the Brits we get doing EPL games. Many of them are not journalists, but ex-players. They also -- like referees -- have a bias in favor of defenders. The thinking here seems to be that a rough tackle has to be reallyrough to warrant a red card -- or even a yellow. A phrase that is heard repeatedly is "he went down too easily" -- it is used to justify a referee's non-call, and is, in effect, an accusation of diving.
The rules do not help; that line about "excessive force" is open to a wide range of interpretations. The idea that there's no foul unless there's a violent tackle was evident over the weekend during the Manchester United vs. Blackburn Rovers game. When referee Howard Webb showed a yellow card to Cristiano Ronaldo for diving, the commentator adjudged that Ronaldo "went over far too easily," and 10 minutes later when ManU's Rafael appeared to bring down Morten Gamst Pedersen, it was Pedersen's turn to be accused of "going down far too easily."
This makes no sense at all. It takes very little force to bring down a player running at any sort of speed, the slightest trip can easily upend a player. Looking at the replays, it is quite possible that Blackburn defender Gael Givet did step on Ronaldo's foot; and more than likely that Rafael did trip Pedersen. In both cases referee Webb sided with the defenders -- though I suppose it must have been Ronaldo's reputation that earned him a yellow, while Pedersen went unpunished. That deepens the mystery of Webb's thinking process: either Rafael fouled (in which case, penalty to Blackburn), or Pedersen dived (yellow to Pedersen) or we're left to assume that Pedersen accidentally tripped himself up.
So what should Ronaldo and Pedersen have done? Even assuming that it was possible, should they have tried to stay on their feet, staggering while losing control of the ball? Would they then have got the call? Of course not ... precisely because they managed to remain upright!
Maybe someone can come up with a finely worded definition of "going over too easily"?