LONDON --The first games of the new EPL season have been played. The scorelines are in, implacable and unarguable; along with them come dozens of coaches' statements, which are anything but unarguable.
Last week, before the first ball was kicked, the coaches -- all of them -- suffered something of a setback when one of their number admitted that he had lied in the past when he claimed not to have seen fouls committed by his own players.
That was Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal coach, speaking. That admission made the headlines in virtually every newspaper. The news, of course, was not that Wenger had lied -- but that he had admitted it. In doing so he merely confirmed what everyone has known all the time, that coaches rarely tell the truth about competitive incidents in their own games.
We don't really expect them to, any more than we expect players to give honest accounts of their doings. Not even David Beckham who, this same weekend, in MLS, earned himself a red card that, he has told everyone, should not have been a red card.
Of course not, David. But the point is an important one as far as referees are concerned. Beckham spent most of his playing career in England, and his attitude tells us a lot about the way that English referees call games.
And it is not good. I got a close up view of it on Saturday when, shunning the glamour EPL games, I went along to the League One (i.e. third division) game between Brentford and Brighton, the Bees vs the Seagulls.
The game ended 0-0 and was utterly dreadful -- the less said about it the better. But the refereeing merits a comment or two. By my reckoning, this game should have had a penalty kick and at least three yellow cards. All it got was one yellow, and that came in the 91st minute.
The officiating, in other words was permissive. The referee let a number of pretty blatant fouls go unpunished. When he did whistle for a bad foul he usually engaged in the typically English rigmarole of a brief chat with the offender, accompanied as always by a series of emphatic gestures, presumably meant to indicate that a hard line was being taken. What those chats could possibly be about I cannot imagine. What is there to discuss?
But there in League One the basics of English soccer, and of English attitudes to the sport, are exposed. The game is vigorous, crude, and rough. It is not about skill, it is almost devoid of trickery, nuances and subtlety. It is more than anything, a fight, a battle in which physical commitment and bravery are valued. Soccer cannot be played that way without the complicity of the referee. So the heavy tackling and the gratuitous contact is condoned.
I am not about to deny that these sort of games can be exciting -- their sheer pace and energy can sometimes ensure that. But most of them are rather desolate affairs, like the Bees vs. Seagulls game that I watched, a rustic activity barely recognizable as the same sport that Arsenal or Barcelona plays.
But those basic attitudes run deep. Listen to this extraordinary comment made by the Blackburn Rovers' midfielder David Dunn as his team was preparing for its opening game against Manchester City -- the newly rich team that is busy loading up on star players. Well, said Dunn, "the main thing is to be really aggressive against them and knock them about a bit. It's important that we do our best and kick lumps out of them, fairly of course." To which the Blackburn coach Sam Allardyce added "I want to mess them up."
Dunn, surely, was joking, wasn't he? He couldn't be advocating kicking people, could he? But if he didn't really mean what he said, then what didhe mean?
I think that all he was doing was giving voice to those deep truths of the English game, rather overstating the case for "getting stuck in." Though it would be interesting to hear his explanation of how one "fairly" kicks lumps out of players.
But if there is one soccer-playing nation where one might be able to accomplish that, it would be England. Because of the leniency of English referees. There are statistics that, in my opinion, make an incontestable case. Last season, in Italy's Serie A, 116 red cards were shown. In Spain's La Liga, the total was 148. In the EPL there were only 63 red cards. Of course, you could argue that those stats merely prove what a dirty bunch the Italians and the Spaniards are. But I think you'd be getting it wildly wrong.