By Paul Gardner
Turning on my television to watch the Dallas vs. D.C.United game on Saturday, I was immediately surprised -- shocked, even -- to see that Josh Wicks was on the field, the starting goalkeeper for D.C.
Here was a player who -- in his previous two games, with only three days between them -- had attempted to assault one of his own teammates (indeed, maybe did assault him, defender Marc Burch), and had then gone on, during the Open Cup final to get himself red-carded for stomping on the Sounders' Fredy Montero.
If Wicks did assault Burch -- a hefty shove would come under that definition, I think -- that's a red-card offense, too. Makes no difference that the shove is directed at a teammate -- the rules are clear on that: "He is also guilty of violent conduct if he uses excessive force or brutality against a teammate ..." And the punishment for violent conduct is a red card.
In that incident, the referee was Kevin Stott, and he chose to over-look the incident as other D.C.United players arrived quickly to separate Wicks and Burch.
The stomping incident -- maybe it's the "alleged stomping incident" -- looked a lot clearer and a lot nastier. Wicks, of course, argued against the red card call, but off he went at the 69th minute, and D.C. United's chances of winning the Open Cup went with him.
Thinking about all of this, I seemed to vaguely recall that MLS has an automatic suspension for a red card -- but not in the next game.
So be it. By then my thoughts had passed on to the wider and more alarming topic of goalkeeper behavior in general. I have no thoughts about Wicks as a goalkeeper -- I assume he's pretty good -- he certainly made a couple of remarkable saves in the Open Cup final (though I should point out that two of those saves were made with his feet, which leaves me wondering why we need someone standing there who is empowered to use his hands -- I have to assume that any field player can make kick saves).
But however good a goalkeeper Wicks may be, his recent behavior presents an appalling picture -- an accurate portrait, really, of just how far goalkeepers have sunk when it comes to acting like sportsmen.
The growth of the goalkeeper cult began, as far as I can see, sometime in the 1970s. Suddenly -- or more likely it had been happening slowly, unnoticed for quite a while -- the goalkeeper became an increasingly strident and noisy element of the game. Egged on by the growing army of "technical" coaches who found it clever to invent a whole range of new functions for the goalkeeper (remember the "sweeper-keeper"?) goalkeepers began to take themselves very seriously indeed. No more modest, likeable, Mr. Nice Guy. No more picking the ball out of the net after letting in a goal -- leave that to someone else. But plenty of theatrics and screaming at teammates, plenty of making it clear that whatever went wrong in the defense, it wasn't the goalkeeper's fault.
It's not a big step from self-importance to arrogance, and goalkeepers made that advance some time ago. The next step, from arrogance to bullying has come and gone, and now we have -- from Josh Wicks - proof that another stage has been reached. Hopefully the final one, before some sort of sanity returns. The bullying behavior toward their own teammates has now become downright loutish.
None of this behavior is necessary, none of it. The game got along very nicely for decades without obnoxious, know-it-all, yelling goalkeepers. Goalkeepers who never make mistakes, of course. Goalkeepers who scream at their defenders repeatedly throughout a game -- but who are left mercifully uncriticized when they screw things up.
I'm not against that last bit -- goalkeepers' errors are likely to be serious, best not to indulge in public recriminations. So why can't the keepers return that thought and shut up when they see, or believe they see (or, more likely, want the TV audience to imagine that they have detected) defensive frailties. Their "wisdom" is virtually all post facto , anyway.
During that Open Cup final, how much more pleasant to cast one's eyes away from Wicks' disagreeable behavior, down to the other end of the field, where Kasey Keller reigned. If there be such a genre in the world of soccer as a Gentleman Goalkeeper, then Keller must be one of the few remaining examples.