By Paul Gardner
In case you haven't noticed, MLS -- which as novice leagues go, is doing pretty well -- has now decided that it wants to be one of the best soccer leagues going. Commissioner Don Garber has told us just that, speaking of "our ambition to be one of the top leagues in the world."
A praiseworthy aim. But a long-term one. Some evidence of immediate action was evidently felt necessary, and so we get Garber switching from admirable ambitions to confused posturing.
The immediate action will come from the MLS’s Disciplinary Committee, led by Garber’s sidekick Nelson Rodriguez. It is going to stamp down, harshly, on rough play it seems. Great. For a start, look at what we did last year, says Garber, citing some “pretty significant punishments” handed down for violent play.
I suppose he must be referring to the nine-game ban visited upon the Rapids’ Brian Mullan for breaking the leg of the Sounders’ Steve Zakuani. I’d say that Mullan’s foul was one of the worst, if not the worst that I have seen in over 60 years of watching this game. Violent, vicious, nasty. Nine games seems to me a derisory punishment for what could well have been a career-ending assault. That tackle occurred nearly a year ago and Zakuani is still out. Mullan, of course, has been playing regularly for most of that time.
Which lends strength to my objection to all this stuff about clamping down on violent play. Frankly, I find it half-hearted. I seriously wonder whether there is any genuine commitment behind it.
Let me explain. When detailing this new, supposedly harsher, attitude toward violent play earlier this month, Garber talked about “protecting our players from injury,” and ensuring “the integrity and reputation of our league.”
Those tepid remarks were as stern as he got. He then turned his attention to “simulation and embellishment” and immediately a different tone is detectable. Suddenly Garber the indignant moralizer rises up.
We saw this side of Garber in 2008 when he jumped on a piffling case of doping involving two New York Red Bulls and called down tremendous wrath on their shoulders, banning Jon Conway and Jeff Parke for 10 games each. Note that: ten games for drinking Jungle Juice, nine games for breaking an opponent’s leg.
And now here comes the moralizing Garber again to hurl thunderbolts at the wicked divers. “We should be able to get rid of that unsportsmanlike aspect of our game, which I think does nothing to build the sport in this part of the world.” Without in any way disagreeing with the sentiment behind that badly worded desire (it does, after all, imply that diving might be acceptable in other parts of the world), what I want to know from Garber, and from Rodriguez, is this: Why is it that the same harsh tone of moral repugnance cannot be directed also at violent play?
Why does Garber speak only of “protecting our players”?
From whom? Well, from our players. Why, then can he not speak out loudly against the players who are causing the problem -- the violent tacklers? Why are they not identified as a category of player -- alongside the very-much-identified divers -- that MLS can do without?
When MLS went through those awful early weeks last season that saw serious injuries to Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales, why was it that we did not get a ringing statement from Garber that players using the type of rough, reckless tackling involved in those incidents would not be tolerated?
What we got instead was a pronouncement, accompanying Mullan’s nugatory nine-game ban, pointing out that players and coaches had already been warned about the danger of this sort of play, so that the punishment should not come as a surprise. We were also told, incredibly, that the Disciplinary Committee had taken into account the fact that Mullan’s foul had occurred in “the third minute of the game, 65-yards away from goal” -- leaving another unacceptable implication, that if the foul had occurred later in the game, or nearer the goal, it would have been treated more lightly.
Diving and divers never receive that sort of consideration. Last season featured two well-publicized diving cases in MLS (yes, just two). In one, D.C. United’s Charlie Davies was fined $1,000 for an obvious dive. In the other, Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio got a one-game suspension for diving, though this was a much more contentious case, and far from being the “obvious simulation” that MLS says it has to be to warrant a suspension. None of which stopped Rodriguez intoning about the necessity to “eliminate this type of behavior.”
When players dive, then, it is a reprehensible “type of behavior.” A character fault of the diver. But when vicious tackles result in broken legs, no such judgment is passed on the tackler -- in fact no judgment at all -- merely a statement that “this type of tackle ... is one we need to eradicate from our game.” The words are again those of Rodriguez, after the Mullan thuggery. The tackle is the problem you see, not the tackler.
The problems of violent tackling and diving are clearly linked. It should be obvious which one needs to be solved first. As long as violent tackling persists, diving -- if only as a defensive reaction -- will exist. On that point, there were some highly sensible comments from the 20-year-old Brazilian star Neymar recently. After being repeatedly kicked and recklessly tackled in a Libertadores Cup game against Juan Aurich of Peru, Neymar told reporters after the game that he had, on several occasions, jumped to avoid dangerous tackles: “If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, I’d be in the hospital.” And quite possibly with a yellow card for diving to accompany him.
That is the type of misjustice that an obsession with diving generates. Both Garber and Rodriguez have fallen victims to that obsession, displaying a harshly condemnatory attitude to divers, while finding themselves unable to be equally stern with the thugs -- with whom, in fact, they should be much more harsh.
I’ll admit to a long-standing dislike of moral arbiters, but that is not the point here. What I’m saying is that a moralizing attitude is a virtual guarantee that facts will not be seen clearly.
Punish the divers, yes, once guilt is clearly established. But in morally condemning divers while, in effect, playing down the activities of leg-breaking tacklers, Garber and Rodriguez are getting their priorities wrong. Maybe they believe that is the way to get MLS ranked as one of the world’s top leagues. I can only hope they’ve got that wrong.
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P.S. I now discover that Garber has another bothersome case to consider - that of Houston’s Colin Clark, who called a Seattle ballboy an “effing f****t.” Clark has already offered an apology that sounds genuine enough. But, having taken such mighty moral stands against doping and diving, can MLS now dare to dismiss anti-gay slurs with a shrug of the shoulders? Probably not, so I suppose we must prepare ourselves for another tedious Garber/Rodriguez Bull on how deplorable it all is, and how splendid MLS is for opposing it.