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 -- alldangerous 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 wouldbe 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.