By Paul Gardner
A mere three minutes into Sunday’s playoff game between the Seattle Sounders and the L.A. Galaxy, we had the familiar sight of Dema Kovalenko engaged in a physical pushing-and-shoving altercation with an opponent. But the incident was unusual in one respect: This time it was the opponent, Osvaldo Alonso -- who had committed the foul.
While Kovalenko and Alonso were being separated by teammates, our commentators, JP Dellacamera and John Harkes had their say. Now, JP and Harkes have seen enough of Kovalenko to know exactly what sort of player he is. So why did they pussy-foot around? Harkes promptly dubbed Kovalenko “a battler,” while JP came up with “one of the most aggressive midfielders” in MLS, confirming that with a stat showing that he has a total of 13 yellow cards in his playoff career, more than anyone else. Harkes then added that Kovalenko “never holds back from a challenge.”
I cannot construe any of that as a criticism of Kovalenko. Rather the opposite in fact -- he is being snidely praised for his tough-guy play. So it needs repeating: this is a player who has, with ill-timed, reckless tackles, broken the legs of two MLS players. How many broken legs does it take before “a battler” becomes “a thug,” before “aggressive” becomes “vicious”? Perhaps JP and Harkes have a tariff in their minds -- one more, maybe, or two more?
For my part, I see no reason to wait for another tragedy. I’ve seen enough of Dema Kovalenko to feel perfectly comfortable in calling him a dirty player. I do not have to rely entirely on my own judgment, here. My opinion is supported by Kovalenko himself. I listened, in 2004, to his answers to my questions about his style of play -- answers that were quietly arrogant, indicating clearly that he didn’t really care about fouls or broken legs, telling me, “No, I’m not changing the way I play."
He has not, and no one need be in any doubt about what he is up to. Journalist Scott French found him in talkative mood after the recent game: “I think they [the Sounders] thought they'd have an easy game ... but not today, my friend. Not today ... it’s what I had to do. It's physical ... If the referee thinks it’s a yellow card, it's a yellow card.”
Sentiments that show a total lack of concern about getting a yellow, which must also mean a lack of concern about the rules of the sport, and a cynical indifference to harming opponents. Unpleasant, to put it mildly.
On to Kovalenko’s coach, the man who sends him out there to rough up opponents -- Bruce Arena. This continues to surprise me. I do not see thuggish soccer as the Arena style -- it certainly wasn’t at UVa or D.C. United or with the national team -- but now it is. Any doubts about that were shattered just a few minutes after Kovalenko did, finally, get himself yellow-carded, when Arena moved to substitute him. Kovalenko playing with a caution hanging over him is quite likely to get another caution and get ejected; either that or he will try to temper his rough-house play, thereby losing whatever effectiveness he may have. By promptly removing him from the game, Arena made it patently clear that he is well aware that physical aggression is the essence of Kovalenko’s game -- he had suddenly become either a liability or just ineffective. So, off he came.
When Kovalenko did, eventually, get a yellow card to add to his impressive tally, the game was 64 minutes old. Why referee Ricardo Salazar waited so long is inexplicable. Everyone and his brother knows that Kovalenko is on the field to intimidate opponents, to commit fouls. Everyone, apparently, except Salazar. Kovalenko’s foul on Fredy Montero in the 41st minute was worth a yellow, but all Salazar did was to have a chat with Kovalenko. And you knew that Kovalenko was laughing at him, making a fool of him -- referees can talk all they like to Kovalenko but “I’m not changing the way I play.” I rate Salazar highly as a referee -- but this performance was pathetic.
For referees, it seems to me, players like Kovalenko present a serious threat. A referee must in my opinion make himself aware of a player’s disciplinary record. Some referees will heatedly deny this, insisting that decisions must be made only on what happens at any given moment. That is a nice ideal, but is a dangerous one.
Allowing license to a player known to have long record of violent play (two broken legs, Mr. Salazar?) leaves me wondering about the legal responsibility of a referee if further mayhem occurs.
Yes, I am saying that players like Kovalenko should be harshly treated by referees. Why not? How many times do we hear about referees not giving free kicks to forwards because they “have a reputation for diving?” If calls for diving can be based on a player’s reputation, then so can calls for the nastier and much more dangerous offense of violent tackling. Ponder the matter: how many legs have the alleged divers ever broken?
If, as Kovalenko alleged, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid did complain to referee Salazar at halftime about his failing to discipline Kovalenko, then I think Schmid did the right thing.
This coming Sunday, we get a replay. It is unlikely that Arena will decide to sit Kovalenko, and it is impossible that Kovalenko, once on the field, can do anything other than play his primitive role of Tyrannosaurus Rex's little brother Kovalenkus Wrecks, laying waste to all around him.
The referee, however, will be different. Is it too much to hope that, this time, we can get a guy who refrains from soppy little chats with Kovalenko and gives him, promptly, the cards that his play so often deserves? That, and TV commentators who do not hide the issue of violent play behind a screen of ambiguous euphemisms.