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Clampdown on violent play? Believe it when you see it
by Paul Gardner, August 26th, 2011 7:38PM

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By Paul Gardner

UEFA's head of referees, Pierluigi Collina, has issued a proclamation detailing what he expects from referees in this coming European season. And a pretty healthy-sounding proclamation it is, too. Top of his list: Referees must be much quicker to punish rough tackling. Amen to that. And referees must deal much more harshly with players who run half the length of the field to mob referees and protest their decisions -- Collina is suggesting a red card for that.

Collina’s unequivocal attack on violent play is a refreshing change from the recent emphasis -- entirely misplaced, in my opinion -- on punishing players for diving. It gets to the root of the biggest of modern soccer’s playing problems: that skilled players, particularly those who like to dribble or run with the ball, put themselves at risk whenever they try to use their skills.

The risk is considerable. In the space of one week at the beginning of this MLS season, we had four horrendous examples of what is involved when the league was deprived of four top players -- David Ferreira, Javier Morales, Steve Zakuani and Branko Boskovic -- all of them out with broken legs.

“We don’t need doctors on the field. We do not want to be in a situation where we have broken legs. Better to convince the players to stop before,” said Collina.

Bravo Collina. Even so, there’s something wrong here. Should it really be necessary for one of the sport’s top officials to announce that we don’t want broken legs? What on earth has happened to soccer, how far has it strayed, when Collina feels obliged to make that statement, and when it is not greeted with bafflement or ridicule as being totally unnecessary?

Come to that, is Collina really aiming his plea at the right people? He is telling referees that they are the ones who can snuff out violence before it happens. But that is an appeal that should surely be more weightily addressed to players and coaches.

Because violent play starts with the mentality that it is OK to rough up opponents. That leads, not to the incidental contact that is an accepted part of the game, but to deliberate physical fouling. Obviously, one would not accuse the players who play like that of wanting to break legs, but they are quite deliberately adopting a style of play that makes mangled limbs a much greater possibility than they should be in this sport.

The attitude I’m talking about was nicely spelled out by Fox Soccer’s Brian Dunseth during a recent telecast of a Los Angeles game. Dunseth was praising Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter with these words: “... and the one thing you love about Gregg Berhalter and you hate playing against is that he communicates so well and he’s just so physical across the back line, you know that if Greg Berhalter has the ability to get a piece of you he absolutely will.”

That should not necessarily reflect on Berhalter -- that is Dunseth’s opinion, delivered in an overtly admiring tone (ironically, it was also delivered as Berhalter was limping off the field with a foot injury).

So, “getting a piece” of an opponent is something to be loved. As a mouthpiece for the proponents of the physical game Dunseth has no doubt got that right. It is that attitude that Collina is, indirectly, attacking. Referees, he says, must punish it. But the first step is for coaches and players -- and TV commentators -- to condemn it.

Clamping down on violent play, then, will face opposition from the coaches and players who feel that “getting a piece” of their opponents is what the game is all about. But that will not be the only barrier to Collina’s call for a war on serious foul play. Sadly, the call is likely to get only a half-hearted response from the referees themselves.

History is not on Collina’s side here. The tale of the tackle-from-behind is revealing. In a 1990 interview, Sepp Blatter (then FIFA’s secretary general) told me that, in the upcoming World Cup of that year, “referees will be told that tackling from behind is prohibited. Yes, there could be red cards ...” There were no reds for a TFB in 1990.

At the 1993 U-17 world cup in Japan, the usual “instructions to referees” memorandum was issued. It referred specifically to TFBs, stating unequivocally “if the player making this tackle trips his opponent ... the referee shall either caution the offending player or send him off ...”

As there are precious few TFBs where the tackled player is not tripped, that ought to have resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of tackles. I was at that tournament, and noted at the time: “Not once did I see a player cautioned for tackling from behind” despite the fact that two teams, the Poles and the Czechs, specialized in such tackles.

The referees were just not listening. A year later, during the 1994 World Cup in the USA came more instructions for referees: the TFB was prohibited, and must be punished by a red card and, referees who did not enforce this ban would be “sent home.” Again, there were no reds -- but there were plenty of TFBs.

But all of these “bans” were merely FIFA decrees concerning certain tournaments. It was not until 1999 that the TFB was specifically mentioned in the rule book (in the “Decisions” section). It was to be punished with a red card if it “endangered the safety of an opponent.” But only six years later, all reference to the TFB disappeared from the rules. It was not to be singled out as uniquely dangerous -- all dangerous tackles were to be greeted with a red card.

In short, despite a decade of calls for a ban on the TSB, despite clear assurances from Blatter that it would be banned, it never was. It remains a regular, and dangerous, feature of every game today.

I fear that Collina’s call for action against the thugs will meet a similar fate. Death by attrition. It will be resisted by coaches (who, of course, love their own thugs but deplore everyone else’s) and referees (who have never shown any ability to speedily embrace rule changes). For any clampdown against violent play to work it needs to be a combined effort involving the whole-hearted commitment of referees and players and coaches. I say “wholehearted” because it is not difficult to get anyone to vow a superficial support -- after all, who is going to affirm that he’s in favor of leg-breaking tackles? No one, of course -- but getting a piece of someone, now that’s quite different.



14 comments
  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: August 26, 2011 at 8:45 p.m.
    Of the 30 World Cup referees in South Africa last year, there were no Americans and one English referee. We'll know when our referees are getting better when FIFA invites them back to work international tournaments. 4 broken legs? Wow. And I thought MLS was getting better...

  1. Edgar Soudek
    commented on: August 26, 2011 at 9:38 p.m.
    As long as players like Marcelo and Pepe get away with even the most brutal fouls, de Jong literally trying to crush the chest of his Spanish opponent during the last World Cup, Messi being hacked piecemeal IN EVERY GAME while the referees smilingly look on, legs are broken by the number... and "attitude" coaches like Mourinho inciting and fostering bad sportsmanship and brutality...NOTHING WILL CHANGE FOR THE BETTER!

  1. Michael Shealy
    commented on: August 26, 2011 at 10:31 p.m.
    The problem that I see here in the states is that the referee's are not held accountable for there calls / no calls where they seem to take it upon themselves to be the star of the game. For example a game this weekend went like this two player went up for a header one tall one short and upon coming down the bigger player came down and making contact with the smaller player. Now what was funny was the Referee went over asked the player what happened and then went over the other player and showed the straight Red. Then the referee wrote this up as Violent Conduct on the match report. Now this is a seasoned long time referee grade 3 even though his report that he turned he put he was a grade 13 omg. Not only did this high level official get the call wrong, show the wrong card, miss-identified the misconduct the referee didn't even know what grade level of referee he was. So it's not only the young referees that need help to get better but the higher level referee's are the one's we look up to for guidance and instruction but if they can't do it right there is little hope the next generation will be any better.

  1. Michael Shealy
    commented on: August 26, 2011 at 10:38 p.m.
    If the referee's get paid to do the job then they should be held accountable for the job they do so often this does not happen in my opinion the politics keeps the better referee's from progressing. The lack of on the job training and or mentoring is one of the biggest problems along with the lack of referee's to cover the games.

  1. Ric Fonseca
    commented on: August 26, 2011 at 10:48 p.m.
    In the past I've commented that in order for everyone to know the Laws of the Game, one the better ways to teach them is to make it mandatory that ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE involved in the game put on a game official's uniform and call games. The principal purpose would be to teach the Laws, and have a better understanding on how difficult it is and what game officials must endure. And lastly,it will open up an opportunity to produce game officials, referees, assistant referees, etc., for all levels of competition. Novel idea, right, but we won't know if it will work unless it is tried, and then Pierluigi Collina's job will be a bit easier, so how about it FIFA, MLS, US Soccer, et. al???

  1. Clayton Berling
    commented on: August 26, 2011 at 11:05 p.m.
    Why do we need to see the highest possible penalty as the only "lawful" way to control the TFB? The red card is almost like a death sentence for assault and battery. Giving a yellow card for this offense does two things: 1) everyone is put on immediate notice that this is not a tolerable offense (and a second such crime for that offender is the "death sentence") and 2) doesn't immediately unbalance the game, a relief to all involved,fans, players and coaches. Punish, yes, but don't destroy unnecessarily. I suspect that's why it is not being given as it should be. It's a referee quandary.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: August 27, 2011 at 12:21 a.m.
    The problem with the red card prohibition for TFB is that it is possible to make a clean tackle from behind; even if there are enough bad ones to warrant not allowing any, a red card for a potentially clean tackle is too harsh. Of course, tackles from behind that are not clean warrant the red card. While I agree with PG's call for harsh treatment of bad fouls, he suggests that a crackdown on diving detracts from that. I disagree. If you crack reduce the number of dives, it's easier to spot (and punish) the real fouls. I would also suggest harsher treatment for the intentional fouls that are common (shirt grabbing, i.e.). A number of years ago college officials were instructed to issue a yellow card to any player that grabbed a shirt sufficiently hard to impede an opponent, which I thought was a good standard. Too often players profit from bending the rules, which contributes to a game in which violence is more tolerated. Finally, while it is important that the referees crack down, it is more important that players and coaches condemn physical violence. Police can't enforce rules no body wants enforced; the same is true for referees.

  1. john davies
    commented on: August 27, 2011 at 8:56 a.m.
    All we need is for the refs to follow the laws of the game that FIFA and Uefa and the FA so lovingly explain to everyone. The trouble is nobody wants the refs to follow the laws of the game, foul and abusive language is a RED card, not a laugh, if a player goes over in the box and the refs deems no unfair contact therefore no penalty, its a yellow card especially if the player claims foul.But we live in the real world, if the refs followed the rules Man U v Arsenal tomorrow would end up with the two goalkeepers playing one another. The truth is today there is to much money in the game, it is not a game it is a business, and we all know in our everyday lives how cutthroat that is, I was just watching Wolves V Villa, Heskey gets the ball half way in the Wolves half, the defender scives him down from behind, the ref talks to the player explaining what the player already knows, it was foul, the player nods agreement throws the ref the ball, guess what Job done defense back in place attack foiled and only punished with a free kick. Some of the laws are stupid, but here a couple of ideas if a player gets injured because of what the ref deems to have been a foul and as to go off for treatment, send the player off who made the tackle go off until the injured player gets back on the field. If a player breaks a players leg by means of a delibrate foul suspend that player for until the injured player comes back.yes it may seem extreme but guess what it would clean the game up in a heartbeat. But alas talk is cheap, and honestly nobody wants to really change the game right now, they are making so much money off of it.

  1. Far Farshad
    commented on: August 27, 2011 at 9:23 a.m.
    The gentlemen's game played by thugs. Even the Barcelonas of the world make room for the Poyuls and the Macheranos to survive. Get stuck in gentlemen. That will never change no matter how much legislation is thrown at it.

  1. Carl Walther
    commented on: August 27, 2011 at 11:35 a.m.
    Brian Dunseth is, and always has been a lover of thug players. i.e. a looser.

  1. rcl mann
    commented on: August 28, 2011 at 5:22 a.m.
    With more and more serious injuries on the field, there MUST be a curb in the violent and destructive behaviour and/or have the players wear more protective gear! Concussions are on the rise, and that affects these athletes for the rest of their lives.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: August 28, 2011 at 1:40 p.m.
    Collina is on the money about the roughhousing and disrespect to the refs who do miss some calls, but are mostly right...what is most perplexing about FIFA is their tight rules during the World Cup and almost no rules in league matches when it comes to dangerous tackles, picking up a lose ball by the defense,unpunished 'professional fouls' and argiung with refs...after watching the U-20 WC recently, it was a breath of fresh air to see no-tolerance for any rule infractions which made the game a pleasure to watch.As for Brian Dunseth's commentary on FSC, it's lame, winded and not in the best interest of futbol.

  1. Brian Something
    commented on: August 29, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.
    Pft... violent play? Broken legs? Injured ankles and knees? Who cares about such triviality? The important thing in soccer is that the guy who's legitimately fouled and goes down a little "too easily" gets lynched in the media and then literally.

  1. Marc Warren
    commented on: August 30, 2011 at 11:33 p.m.
    The protection of skilled players (actually all players) must be the highest priority. I would suggest that any defender that injures an opposing player be sidelined without pay for the duration of the injured players absence. If it is a career ending injury the perpetrator's professional career is done. Only with a financial penalty will the thugs of the game be eliminated. FIFA, UEFA, MLS must back the refs. You can not expect the ref's to be the only solution The beautiful game should be protected.


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