By Paul Gardner
This is actually quite funny -- assuming that you like wry jokes. The English FA has finally had enough of Alex Ferguson’s antics, with his repeated aspersions directed at referees who don't officiate games in a way that he likes. So the FA has fined Ferguson $48,000 and suspended him for three games -- which becomes five games because two games left hanging from a previous offence are now activated.
So, wow, how about that, the FA finally showed some teeth, waking up at last to tell Ferguson that he can’t behave as if the English Premier League is his own personal fiefdom and that everything in it should be done his way.
And here comes the funny bit ... because that five-game suspension is really a joke. It means very little. At those five games Ferguson will be allowed to be present in the stadium. He will not be allowed to be on the bench or within the technical area. But he can -- in the FA’s own words -- “sit anywhere else in the stadium.” Which means that he is entitled to occupy a seat directly behind the bench.
That shouldn’t be a problem at home games -- some faithful season-ticket holder at Old Trafford would no doubt be delighted to cede his place -- thus ensuring that Ferguson is pretty damn nearly on the bench.
There’s more. This is the FA speaking again: “There are no restrictions on communication or on entrance to the dressing room at any time.” So Ferguson can shout to the bench, or pass little slips of paper, or use his cell phone to convey instructions. At halftime he can trot along to the locker room to deliver, as usual, his half time oration.
The only thing missing, really, will be his ability to get in the face of the fourth official. But even that disappointment is not total, for while Ferguson is on his way to and from the locker room he’ll be in the tunnel, where all the best confrontations between coaches and referees take place.
As I said, something of a joke, this. Some ban. Nor does the $48,000 fine sound like an amount that’s likely to put much of a dent in the Ferguson finances.
All in all, the ostensibly severe but actually quite benign punishment inflicted on Ferguson seems to mirror the way in which EPL referees discipline players -- all theater, with plenty of stern faces, sharp words, ominous arm gestures ... but no cards.
Whether or not ManU will suffer from Ferguson’s pseudo-banishment is an intriguing question. For ManU to recover its form (which has been slipping of late) during Ferguson’s phantom absence would raise the unthinkable notion that the team can get along quite well without his touchline presence.
The influence of coaches could also be studied at the opening game of MLS. A very well-chosen game this -- in Seattle, meaning a huge crowd and tremendous atmosphere, and with David Beckham making one of his rare appearances for the Galaxy. Well, OK, not all that rare, but remember this was an opening game and Beckham has managed only two of those in his four seasons.
In short, MLS had done all it could to guarantee a barn-burner to open the season. So, of course, it got an insipid apology for a game, with little goalmouth action, and only one goal. Another of those games where the teams are, it seems “well-organized,” a term that can only mean well-coached from the defensive angle. So, I guess coaches Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid are to be congratulated on their organizational skills.
After only 12 minutes, TV commentator John Harkes enthusiastically remarked that “L.A.’s shape looks pretty good,” at which point I feared the worst.
Oh for the day when coaches are cursed rather than praised for turning out teams that are well-organized and that keep their shape! Increasingly, you can be almost certain that the real excitement in a game, the real soccer, will only come at the end, when a team decides to throw caution to the wind in search of a tying or winning goal. We got it here, in the final 15 minutes that were considerably less organized but much more enthralling than anything that had gone before.
We got it, too -- big time -- in midweek when Inter Milan staged a sensational comeback to knock Bayern Munich out of the Champions League. After an early burst of goalscoring had given Bayern an apparently unassailable 3-1 aggregate lead, the game settled down into a well-organized stand-off ... until Inter, increasingly sensing that it could get something out of this game, shed its tactical shackles to produce a storming climax, complete with a wonderful winning goal. Well-organized? Forget it. But the absence of that horrible phrase does not mean that this game was suddenly dis-organized. Simply that a looser, more player-oriented control took over -- one that involved taking risks. And that is something that no well-organized team ever wants to be caught doing.
I started with a wry joke. I’ll finish with a sad joke. Back to Seattle. During that final hectic 15 minutes there was one name that did not get mentioned in the TV commentary -- that of David Beckham. Not until the 93rd minute, when he collected a yellow card for a cynical trip.
Beckham was, in fact, a marginal figure throughout the game. One free kick that sailed just over the bar was his input. Despite all his blather about keeping fit and how he needed to be training in England, the one thing he did not appear to be was precisely that ... fit. In the first half Harkes had already broken the news (as well as the convention that you don’t criticize Beckham) when he remarked “He looks tired.”
On the evidence of this game, the 35-year-old Beckham is simply not fit enough to play 90-minutes. He’s on his way to becoming the MLS’s first-ever Designated Super-Sub. And there might be some doubts about the Super part of that.