Well now. If soccer is merely an entertainment whose main function is to provide controversial doings for us to argue about, then this past weekend has been a huge success.
The soccer, as it happens, was not all that entertaining. It should have been, but for whatever reason, despite the playing of three, arguably four or five, massively important games in three different countries, intensity and drama -- and good soccer -- was sadly lacking.
Not entirely. We did get, almost as an afterthought, an amazing coda to the Arsenal-Liverpool game. A must-win game for Arsenal if it wished to maintain any realistic challenge for the Premier League title, and maybe even a must-win game for Liverpool too, to keep alive its feeble chance of finishing in the EPL’s top four and thereby securing a place in the money-soaked European arena.
Not that Liverpool played like it had to win -- I calculated that Arsenal had about 99 percent of the possession, while Liverpool “defended well,” that tired old phrase for a team that pulls everyone back and, by hook or by crook, gets bodies in the way of everything.
An uninspired Arsenal had no answer to the blockade, and a 0-0 tie was looming when, deep into injury time, Robin Van Persie slammed home a penalty kick awarded, correctly I say, for a trip by defender Jay Spearing on Cesc Fabregas. Whereupon Liverpool suddenly reversed its everyone-back approach by sending everyone forward. In no time at all -- and with virtually no time left -- Liverpool was rewarded with its own penalty kick, when Emmanuel Eboue crudely bumped into the back of Lucas and knocked him down. Dirk Kuyt netted with the last kick of the game.
I’m not so sure about that second penalty, but ... seen from the coaches’ bench (that’s the area from which coaches always claim they don’t have a clear view whenever one of their own players commits any atrocious act), it wasn’t a penalty. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger did, this time, see everything and was in no doubt that it was a rotten call: “I don’t think it was a penalty. Lucas stopped Eboue’s run to go to the ball, it is no penalty. Eboue goes for the ball he doesn’t go for the player.”
Liverpool coach Kenny Dalglish had this to say about the two penalty calls: “I thought one was right and one was wrong. You can make up your mind which is which.” I’ve managed to work that out, and I’ve decided that he means that the one against Liverpool was the wrong one. So, referee Andre Marriner calls two penalties in added time, one obvious, one less so, and of course the coaches on the receiving end criticize his judgment. Who’d be a referee?
As the game ended, we had the edifying sight of Wenger and Dalglish trading harsh words on the sideline. We saw something similar after Manchester City had dumped Manchester United out of the FA Cup with a drab 1-0 win. There was Man U’s Rio Ferdinand going after Man City’s Mario Balotelli, yelling and jabbing his finger, because Balotelli had taunted the Man U fans, and had given Ferdinand what was described as “a sarcastic wink.”
There was more coach-talk on the matter of fouls from this game too. After Man U’s Paul Scholes was red-carded for imprinting his stud marks on Pablo Zabaleta’s thigh, Alex Ferguson made light of the ejection as one of Scholes’ “red-mist” tackles. Not exactly a foul then, just a misty moment.
The 1-1 tie between Arsenal and Liverpool had its counterpart in Spain, where the key league game between Real Madrid and Barcelona also failed to live up to expectations -- it finished 1-1, also via two penalty kicks -- and also featuring a coach’s disagreement. A quite incredible opinion, this one, voiced by -- who else? - Real coach Jose Mourinho. After Real’s Raul Albiol had wrestled David Villa to the ground -- even grabbing him round the neck -- Mourinho gave his rather odd opinion that it was a foul, but that it was “nothing,” certainly not worth a penalty kick call.
In Italy, Napoli -- still hard on the heels of the league leader AC Milan -- made a hash of its crucial home game against Udinese, a team 12 points and three places below them in the league. A 2-1 win for Udinese meant the end of Napoli’s chances of winning the scudetto.
The soccer here was also mediocre, particularly from Napoli, which was second best for pretty much the entire game -- until the very end, when it suddenly sparked to life and we got, with just three minutes left of regular time ... yet another late penalty kick. Up stepped Napoli’s top-scorer, the Uruguayan Edinson Cavani, only to see his poorly taken kick saved by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. No criticism of the referee Paolo Tagliavento here -- but there should have been. Not for the award of the kick (the offending player, Maurizio Domizzi, was red-carded), but Tagliavento should have ordered a re-take because of blatant encroachment by at least three Udinese players. But encroachment is becoming almost routine at penalty kicks, with poorly positioned referees either unwilling or unable to spot it.
Then there was the other English FA Cup semifinal -- not to be sniffed at, even if it did feature two highly unfashionable and unexpected teams. In this game, everything went right, very quickly -- provided you were a Stoke City fan. Poor Bolton Wanderers found itself trailing by 3-0 after only half an hour of play, and its fans were already leaving the stadium.
No referee interference here, no penalty kicks, not even a Stoke goal caused by Rory Delap and his infamous long throws. It finished 5-0, and so Stoke -- one of the oldest soccer clubs in England (and presumably the world) -- finally won its way to the FA Cup final. This must be one of the longest waits in pro sports -- it’s taken 148 years, or maybe it’s only 143 years -- there is some doubt about when the club did start playing.
On this matter of referees, we’ve been hearing a lot from the ESPN guys about how MLS officials have gone crazy and are dishing out non-stop cards. Really? This weekend’s eight games featured 26 yellows, or 3.25 per game, which strikes me as being lower than it should be, and I’d say the same for the miserly two red cards issued. As for fouls, the total was 174, for an average of 21.75 per game, a middling sort of figure, neither satisfyingly low nor scandalously high.
But if Commissioner Don Garber’s commendable wish to see more protection for skillful players and a reduction in violent fouls is to be achieved, the totals of fouls called, plus cards, will inevitably go up, at least initially. There was no evidence of that during this weekend’s games. Alas.