By Paul Gardner
LONDON -- Well, that didn’t take long. A mere three days after Chelsea's young Brazilian Oscar was being lauded to the heavens by the English media for scoring a "wonder goal" against Juventus he finds himself being tarred as a cheat. This because referee Michael Oliver decided he had dived during Saturday’s game against Stoke City and yellow-carded him.
Oscar’s goal against Juventus was a beauty -- unless you were TV critic and former Scottish midfield hard man Graeme Souness, who said it was a fluke, that Oscar simply got lucky. But most of the English media preferred to heap extravagant praise on Oscar and to marvel at the speed with which he had adapted to the supposedly tough, macho, requirements of the English game.
By Saturday evening, the media were presenting a rather different Oscar. Leading the assault on the Brazilian was Stoke City coach Tony Pulis. This was hardly a surprise. Two years ago Pulis demanded that divers should get an automatic three-game suspension. He admits that "Simulation is a real bugbear for me ...” and accused not only Oscar but also Branislav Ivanovic of play-acting to gain penalty kicks. His charge against Ivanovic had some merit, but the Chelsea defender’s tumble was simply ignored by the referee.
Things were different with Oscar. Referee Oliver decided that Oscar, on the receiving end of a challenge from Ryan Shawcross, had dived and gave the yellow card. Suddenly the press was anti-Oscar -- who was accused of “throwing himself down” and of having “collapsed in the box under a challenge from Ryan Shawcross.”
Pulis at once jumped into the fray, and his comment is classic in its quick brushing aside of Oscar’s talent before indicting him on two accounts -- of being a diver, and of being foreign: “Oscar is a super player, but this is England and we can’t watch players fall over and not talk about it ... Forget what Europe is doing, we should highlight it more and certainly crack down on it.”
Once again, the referee got it wrong. Pulis, the anti-diving zealot, of course gleefully went along. But the replays do not agree. There was contact -- Shawcross is a clumsy tackler at best -- but, for what it’s worth, the initial contact seems to be outside the area.
When these cases arise -- which they do almost every week in England -- it is usual to look only at the behavior of the alleged diver. Pulis, it seems, knows all about that: “There are certain players in the Premier League who have got a reputation and referees know that if you touch them then they'll fall down or go down as quickly as they can. The referees know ...” says Pulis. But that can hardly be the case with Oscar, who has only just made his EPL debut. Never mind, Pulis will do what he can to tarnish the image of this “super player.”
Pulis has to know -- and presumably this is what he wants -- that these accusations of players “going down too easily” are sweet music to the ears of defenders. If defenders feel confident that referees are more likely to call diving than a foul, then the referees’ attitude becomes a Thug's Charter, not only permitting, but obviously inviting, reckless play.
Let us, for a change, look at the player making the “tackle” -- in this case Ryan Shawcross. What do, or should, the referees know about him? Quite a lot, as it happens, and none of it good.
In October 2007 his tackle sent Sheffield Wednesday’s Francis Jeffers off the field on a stretcher with severe ankle ligament damage; in 2008 another crude tackle put Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor out for three weeks, and in February 2010 Shawcross inflicted a double fracture of the leg on Aaron Ramsey, putting him out of the game for nine months.
Pulis, the scourge of divers (who have yet, I believe, to break anyone’s leg), finds all of that acceptable. After the brutality against Ramsey, Pulis indignantly asserted that “Shawcross has no malice in him, there’s no way in a million years he’d set out to do that to any player.”
Maybe not, but there is ample evidence to show that Shawcross is a reckless tackler. Surely something that referees should “know” -- and should therefore take into account in their decisions?
Not in England, where hefty tackling is admired. Right at the end of the Chelsea-Stoke game, Pulis had another cause for complaint -- this one more than justified: a violent, two-footed, studs-up tackle by Chelsea’s David Luiz. Referee Oliver gave a yellow card. Pulis said it should have been a red, and he was quite right. Now, if only Pulis could apply similar straight thinking to his own players -- all of whom are part of a team that revels in what might be called forceful play. Then again -- why should he? The EPL referees are clearly on his side, hounding the alleged divers, going easy on thuggish tackles.
For Americans, this is not a theoretical matter. MLS, in its wisdom, has appointed an Englishman, Peter Walton, an ex-EPL referee, as the man in charge of the new Professional Referee Organization (PRO). Walton will thus be in charge of telling American referees how to referee. Shortly, Walton will appoint an assistant -- another Brit import, and another insult to American referees, who are once again told that none of them is good enough for these jobs.
Walton will give us EPL-style refereeing. We shall get the thug's charter approach. Walton, of course, would deny that. He did deny it in a recent interview: “I’m not here to establish English referees ... for me to come here to try to clone people to become English referees is a non-starter ... My idea is to build what’s right for this market.”
No English style refereeing then. Wanna bet? In another recent interview, Walton has already let us know that he favors chatting to players rather than issuing a second yellow card and sending them off. These interviews reveal Walton’s inevitable naivete about American soccer, and underline his umbilical links to England. Having decided that the white spray used by MLS referees to mark out the 10-yard distance at free kicks is not, after all, a gimmick, he promptly calls his buddies in England to tell them all about it. That is the way his thinking goes. So England gets the white spray marker, while the USA gets the thug's charter. Now, there’s progress.