OK, clamber into your Time Capsule -- we’re swooshing back a few decades, back to Thursday May 6, 1976. Open up your New York Times on that day, turn to page 57 (in the early edition -- soccer stories soon got replaced in those days) -- and you'd find an article headed "Expert Looks at U.S. Soccer and He Doesn’t Like Brutality." The byline on the story is Paul Gardner. Yes, I was the expert, though I didn’t write that cumbersome headline. I’d wanted “The Wrath of Pele” -- and you’ll understand why if you read on. Here is what that 35-year-old article said:
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NEW YORK TIMES, Thursday May 5, 1976
Expert Looks at U.S. Soccer, and He Doesn’t Like Brutality
By Paul Gardner
Two weeks ago, more than a million New Yorkers watched the telecast of the New York Cosmos-Miami Toros soccer game. And they saw something that I -- and, I am sure, the people who run the North American Soccer League -- would rather they had not seen.
They saw Pele running full speed past the ball and launching himself at the legs of a Miami defender. An ugly and dangerous foul, one for which Pele should surely have been cautioned, if not ejected from the game.
Yet, had he been ordered off, travesty would have been added to tragedy because Pele’s assault was the almost inevitable climax to an afternoon in which he had been repeatedly kicked and knocked down. It was, in short, retaliation for almost 90 minutes of cynically brutal play by the Miami defenders, all of it taking place under the inexplicably lenient eye of referee Gordon Hill.
I have no idea what possessed Hill (widely thought of as the best referee in this country) to allow the roughness to develop to flash point, but he may, unwittingly, have done us all a favor. For Pele’s explosion dramatically focuses attention on a very real problem facing the NASL this season.
Some of the world’s top players are members of the league, players such as Pele, George Best, Rodney Marsh, Ramon Mifflin, Giorgio Chinaglia and Bobby Moore. Ironically, they are the ones creating the problem. For their arrival has given the league a dangerously unbalanced shape.
The highly skilled world-class players make up the top end of the league’s skill spectrum. At the bottom end there are, alas, far too many players who are, to put it charitably, undertalented.
It is a volatile mixture of the best and, if not the worst, certainly the not-good-enough.
The danger, as I see it, is that the inferior players, feeling themselves outclassed, will resort to rough play. Forgive the orthodox euphemism; I mean that they will start kicking opponents rather than the ball.
Of course, I am not so naive as to imagine that I have discovered anything new here. And that is one of the things that puzzles me most about the situation. I know -- as league officials know, and as the players and coaches and surely the referees know -- that there are players in the league who have the reputation of being kickers. And that there are teams that play what is described -- again euphemistically -- as a “physical” or an “aggressive” game.
What they are doing is clearly illegal under soccer’s rules. So why are they allowed to get away with it?
Those who love soccer and want to see it thrive in this country have often made the point that it is a sport in which there are few serious injuries. This is true when soccer is properly played. But when scantily padded players are given license to kick each other and to tackle violently, the risk of serious injury becomes much greater. Can we encourage parents to send their children out to play that sort of game?
There is clearly a Gresham’s Law of Soccer: bad soccer will drive out good soccer. Violent play is a serious threat to the game itself. It has to be stopped.
This is where I think the NASL. is presented with a magnificent opportunity. Nothing less than the chance to become the world leader in the campaign to clean up soccer. Why shouldn’t the NASL be known as the league where gifted players are protected, where their skills are allowed to flourish? Players like Pele and Best have to be protected, not because they are famous names or because they cost their clubs a lot of money, but because they are trying to play soccer the way it should be played.
How to protect them? I believe that a substantial proportion of the trouble would be eliminated if referees would be much harsher in penalizing the “tackle from behind.”
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Swoosh. Back to the present. Back to a league, MLS, that is now managing to duplicate, in a quite shocking way, the problem I described 35 years ago. A league that is sabotaging its own chances of success by presenting a dangerously physical version of the sport. Four of its best players are now sidelined, with horrendous injuries resulting from reckless fouls. More than likely, they will be out for the rest of the season. Then -- who knows? Full recovery can never be assured from broken leg or a smashed ankle.
What kind of a league is this, what kind of players and referees and administrators does it have that there has not been an outcry against the carnage? Why has Commissioner Don Garber, who started the season so well with his appeal for referees to be more severe in their calling of physical fouls, who made the strong case for better protection of skilled players, why has he not been heard from? Is it asking too much that MLS coaches, as a group, could not get together and issue a joint statement deploring the situation? Ditto for the referees.
Well, yes, it is asking too much. All we get from coaches are paeans to their own players, none of whom, bet your life on it, would ever dream of hurting anyone. And referees are a notoriously supine species when it comes to collective action.
My suggestion, back in 1976, that the tackle from behind should be harshly punished was probably not strong enough, even in those days. In fact, FIFA was shortly to make a big deal of its intention to ban it completely. But that never happened, and now we’re back where we started -- in fact we’ve regressed because the rules now make no mention of there being anything especially, or uniquely, heinous about such a tackle. Even the wording making it very clear that to play the man before getting the ball is a foul has been removed from the rules.
Today, because the overall question of the problems posed by physical play has never been squarely faced up to, we have a sport that far too often does not even come close to exhibiting its brilliance. A game that allows its refined skills to be trampled on by physical -- and reckless -- play.
To ask, as I did in 1976, and Garber has done this season, that the referees clamp down on violence is evidently not going to improve matters. What is needed is a much more ruthless look at the role coaches play in all this, what they expect from their own players, and -- more tellingly -- what they require of their own players.
If coaches feel they have a strong case for employing physical players, often crudely physical players, then let’s hear it from them, let them state their case clearly. It may carry some weight -- but that weight can be convincing in only one sense: That the game itself now requires physical players. If that’s the case, then we know to stop wasting our time harassing referees and coaches -- and players.
The problem then becomes one of looking at the basic structure of the game itself, and its rules. As a start, you can ask yourself: When was the last time that FIFA did that -- in a serious manner? You may find yourself answering that FIFA has never done that.
But we’ve reached a point where the problem does go deep into the roots and history of the sport. They have to do with the very soul of the sport. The game as envisaged by English Victorian gentlemen in 1863 may well not be a game suitable for 2011. But we do not have to accept that the inevitable changes in soccer must slowly deprive it of its very own, unique skills and move it closer and closer to rollerball.