By Paul Gardner
Saints, said George Orwell, should always be judged guilty until they can prove their innocence. He got that exactly right. Perfection, you may have noticed -- whatever people may say about it -- is rarely admired. "No one can be that good," is the usual response, one tinged with suspicion and jealousy for sure, but also a healthy response because we know that there is something not natural, not human in perfection.
Perfection belongs to another world, beyond the reach of most of us ... and that world is, maybe subconsciously, viewed as sterile, lacking the spice, the excitements, the mischief, the threats, and the dangers of everyday life.
It would be surprising if soccer, which has assumed the role of a secular religion throughout the world, were free of saints. Most of them, in accordance with tradition, are dead. But we have some living examples -- two of them right here in the USA. Saint David Beckham and Saint Timothy Howard. Two players who are treated as perfection by the saint-makers of this day and age, the television commentators.
When was the last time you heard either player actually criticized on TV for doing something wrong? A poor pass? A muffed save? Stupid behavior? Never. Doesn’t happen. Can’t happen. Saints don’t err. Mindless adulation is the rule here.
Welcome to the perfect (TV) world of St. David and St. Tim. I have duly canonized both of them, as TV seems unwilling to give out the honors that its amazing sycophancy to both players surely demands.
Over the past week, the two Saints have been duly swamped with praise, with never a bad word leveled at them. We can start with Ian Darke, the Brit who lives in Brit-land, but who is now ESPN’s instant expert on American soccer. Darke was at work during Tuesday’s USA game against Belgium, quite rightly praising St. Tim for sterling work in the first half (though the level of the praise, as always with Saints, was over done).
On we go to the second half -- the 55th minute, when a low, hard, 22-yard shot from Belgian defender Nicolas Lombaerts beat St. Tim for the only goal of the game. Darke’s reaction was, of course, to immediately absolve Howard of any blame -- “Nothing Tim Howard could do that time,” then adding, as further proof of the saintly goalkeeper’s innocence, “I think Tim Howard saw that late, it came through bodies.”
It did, but that’s hardly unusual. Anyway, the replays showed Howard moving down quickly as the shot was taken. Agreed -- a tricky one, as the wet ball -- struck with force -- bounced in front of Howard; he got his hand on the ball, but it slipped under him and into the net. Was it savable? Of course -- a saintly infallible keeper ought to make saves like that. Howard did the best he could, but it wasn’t good enough.
So why did Darke feel obliged to underline, twice, that St. Tim could not in any way be blamed for the goal? Because, when you’re in the business of praising Saints, the slightest hint that they are a tad less than perfect must be excused.
The hagiolatry had begun, big time, a day earlier on Monday, when Fox Soccer gave us the Kansas City vs. Los Angeles MLS game, featuring St. David. The appointed worshipers here were JP DellaCamera and Kyle Martino, who waded into their assignment with great gusto.
Things started with a 34-second paean by a breathless Martino who called St. David “the best right foot Major League soccer has ever seen, the smartest soccer player I’ve ever played with, with an ability to pass the ball over any distance and make guys around him better.”
Martino returned later to his having played with Beckham -- “for the first two years he was here” he said, but surely that can’t be right. Beckham played only five MLS games in his first year, 2007, with the Galaxy -- which was Martino’s final year with the team, before his retirement.
JP chimed in to tell us that St. David “in year five of a 5-year contract is trying to win MLS Cup for his team -- he’s having his best year statistically.”
At the 31-minute mark, JP excitedly gushed “look at this pass ...” as St. David slipped a neat ground ball through the KC defense, but the receiver, Adam Cristman, was offside. Maybe Cristman moved too early … or maybe St. David should have made the pass a second or two earlier? The possibilities were never discussed. In the meantime, St. David had taken one poor free kick, and made three inaccurate passes.
The poor passes continued into the second half, but never, not once, did they call forth a criticism from JP or Kyle. They were simply ignored. But a nice flick-pass got a histrionic “What a ball! Early touch ...” treatment from Martino. St. David got further praise when LA scored its second goal in the 74th minute -- a nifty assist to Sean Franklin -- “What a ball from Beckham!” said JP, with Martino adding “What a great ball there from Beckham ... the shrewd thinking, the perfectly paced pass.” Yes, it was a good pass, but, come on guys, it wasn’t one to slobber over.
But where was the acknowledgment that St. David was also making errors? The worst came in the 90th minute when his poor pass gave possession to Kansas City; the ball was promptly lobbed into the L.A. penalty area where Frankie Hejduk handled to give away a PK, allowing Omar Bravo to tie the game. Not a word about St. David’s lapse.
As time ran out, St. David took a poor corner kick; considering that Martino, just 12 minutes earlier, had delivered a short lecture on just how great the Saint’s corner kicks are (with which, on the whole I agree) some comment might have been expected. We got none.
Then at the 95th minute, St. David tried -- and very nearly succeeded -- to dribble through a mass of KC defenders. He was tripped, bringing up a free kick some 24 yards out. Perfect for bend-it-like-Beckham wizardry -- but St. David hit his kick into the wall. So LA’s last chance to win a game in which it had twice taken the lead, was frittered away with a poor free kick. Not a word about that from JP or Martino.
Saints, you see, get special treatment on TV. Clearly that is not the fault of either Beckham or Howard. Both are excellent players who do not need this idolatrous approach. But neither player is the paragon that the TV commentators regale us with.
So one wonders: This necessity to festoon St. David and St. Tim with way-over-the-top praise, and to turn a blind eye to their frailties ... where does this come from? Whatever its origins, we’d be better off without it. Being asked to regard Beckham and Howard as being from another world is simply insulting the viewers’ intelligence -- particularly when the evidence to contradict the notion is often right there in front of us. And -- need it be stressed? -- it does nothing to strengthen the credibility of the announcers.