"I don't get no protection!" might well be the theme song for soccer's star players. It is a theme that is very much in the air at the moment. Alex Ferguson has complained that English referees are not doing enough to protect Cristiano Ronaldo, and that the Portuguese star is being systematically fouled. "It has become a tactic," says Ferguson, "someone fouls him, then someone else."
In Italy, AC Milan's vice president Adriano Galliani had similar things to say about the way that the team's young Brazilian star Pato was being mauled. "He is being scientifically targeted the moment he steps on the field," says Galliani. The defenders who kick Pato, says Galliani, are hoping that he will then "become a peripheral figure" in the game.
This weekend, Christopher Sullivan on Fox Soccer Channel remarked, after Columbus' Gino Padula was red-carded for a foul on Cuauhtemoc Blanco that "You've got to protect a player like Blanco . . ."
So - is that right? Are there special players who should get special treatment? Yes ... and no. The problem with the case as set out by Ferguson, Galliani and Sullivan is that it is like to arouse more opposition than support.
To single out individuals like Ronaldo or Pato makes it sound as though these guys are somehow fragile, and that they should be entitled to a level of referee protection that is not offered to the other players.
From what I know of soccer people - or maybe it's just people in general - that argument will never gain widespread acceptance. In fact, it's far more likely to stir up antagonism toward the star players, with people regarding them as cry-babies and prima donnas who should stop whining and learn to abide by the same rules as everyone else.
Indeed, they should. But at the same time they definitely DO need more protection. For the simple reason that they tend to be fouled more often, and more dangerously. Their situation is quite different from that of an aggressive defender or a rugged midfielder, who are likely to revel in physical play.
The Ronaldos and the Patos and the Blancos have other things on their mind, creative things -- and these are frequently things that involve ball trickery, often dribbling. That makes them vulnerable to fouling. A defender who merely heads or kicks the ball away each time it comes anywhere near him is rarely, if ever, under threat of being fouled - particularly from behind.
Even so, those defenders and those midfielders should - along with Ronaldo & Co - receive the same treatment from the referee. They should all be "protected."
Galliani made a lot of sense when he said: "Defenders have always kicked forwards, but the treatment dealt out to Pato is a little excessive. But it's up to the referees to see if things are legal or not. Referees shouldn't protect anyone, but they have to put the brakes on violent play . . ."
That gets to the heart of the matter. Instead of a plea for special treatment for special players, the appeal should be asking referees to simply enforce the rules. As currently written, the rules give a referee totally adequate power to clamp down on violent play, and to punish the offenders.
The problem with most current refereeing is that it seems to be constantly looking for ways to lessen punishment, to make out that fouls were not really bad, or maybe not fouls at all, or worse -- that, as the defender didn't foul, the attacker must have dived. Ferguson raised that point, and it is a massive one. If you have any doubts about it, try to watch a tape of Saturday's Manchester United vs. Tottenham game.
You will see there three incidents involving Ronaldo. In two of them, Ronaldo was clattered to the ground by violent "challenges" from Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Referee Howard Webb did not call either foul. But the worst moment came just six minutes into the game when Spurs midfielder Wilson Palacios raced toward Ronaldo and leaped violently at him, both feet well off the ground, all his studs showing. Had Ronaldo not hopped out of the way, he would surely now be in a hospital bed. But Webb allowed play to continue -- presumably playing advantage. That was a questionable call anyway, but Webb should have given Palacios at least a yellow at the next stoppage. He didn't.
Of course players should not dive. But when they are repeatedly and dangerously fouled without any action from a lenient referee, the temptation to do so becomes understandable. It is up to the referees to dish out more cards, more quickly. Enough of this "verbal caution" nonsense -- something that has no basis in the rulebook -- these cozy little chats that merely allow the thugs one more chance to maim someone.
Sadly, current refereeing practice permits violent play to an extent that applying the rules as they should be applied now looks like special treatment.
But it is not special treatment, or special protection, that Ronaldo and Pato and Blanco should get. All that's needed is for the referees to stop the pussyfooting around and the little warning chats and the pro-defender calls and instead to nail the fouls and give the cards. Really, you know, asking a referee to stick to the rulebook should not be asking too much, now should it?