By Paul Gardner
LONDON -- Spending time among the English nowadays -- talking soccer, watching EPL games, reading the sports pages, listening to the army of TV experts, discussing the sport with fans -- always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that I have been mingling with people who really don't care that much about the sport.
I’m not talking only -- or even primarily -- of the fans. It has always been pretty clear that diehard fans will put the interests of their club -- i.e. winning -- above all else. In England that attitude always seems to boil down to the necessity of forgetting about playing decent soccer. Of the 20 club coaches in the Premier League, there are two who stand out as proponents of the “doesn’t-matter-how-you-play-as-long-as-you-win” school: Sam Allardyce, the Englishman in charge at West Ham United, and Tony Pulis, the Welshman at Stoke.
Allardyce has his team currently in sixth place in the EPL, playing a style of soccer I’ll charitably describe as archaic. But he’s good with his put-downs is Big Sam -- “Contrary to what any media say, fans at West Ham are interested in the passion of the player and the commitment of the player, rather than all that pretty football stuff.”
Strong stuff that, given that West Ham has a long tradition of playing stylish soccer, and is often referred to as “The Academy.”
Is Allardyce right, I wonder -- not just for the Hammers’ fans, but for English fans in general, for English soccer as a whole? I sat in a pub here recently watching Chelsea beat Arsenal. Amongst a group of Arsenal fans eating and drinking and watching the big screen was one who burst into flames every time Chelsea’s Fernando Torres got the ball, venomously yelling repeatedly “Do ‘im! DO ‘im!” Meaning, I guess, kick him, or at least knock him down. Given that Torres was usually either inside, or just outside, the Arsenal penalty area this seemed suicidal advice.
Maybe not. Maybe the fan knew his English-style refereeing and was confident that no foul would be called. There’s plenty of supporting evidence for that view. The day before the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game, Luis Suarez had been in action for Liverpool against Norwich, had scored a hat trick ... but the action-picture given the most space by the Sunday newspapers showed Suarez being bulldozed -- from behind by Norwich defender Leon Barnett. A full-body assault, that included an elbow to Suarez’s head. No foul, said referee Mike Jones, play on. An insane decision. But one with a history. Suarez has been in England for little more than a year -- but that’s quite long enough for him to have acquired a reputation as a diver. Or for the EPL referees to have created one for him.
Could it be that the reputation was what made Jones make what, one hopes, is the worst call, or non-call, he’s ever made? It could. Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers had already been in touch with EPL referee boss Mike Riley to protest that Suarez is not getting the calls that he should get, while the Liverpool fans have a new chant, “We’re gonna have party, when Suarez gets a penalty.”
So Suarez is a diver and can therefore be fouled with impunity. Much the same thing happened to Cristiano Ronaldo when he was at ManU -- he was damned as a diver -- and he also used too much hair gel, and did too many stepovers.
Do the English really, deep down, like the skillful attacking players? Or do they get more pleasure from persecuting them as purveyors of the dreaded “pretty stuff”? There’s not much fear of encountering the pretty stuff up in Stoke, where Tony Pulis’s oversized team specializes in scrambling in goals from long balls or from set plays. Pretty, no. Ugly yes. And Pulis is one of the real loudmouths when it comes to moaning about diving. He is demanding an automatic three-game suspension for divers, and had harsh words for two Chelsea players whom he recently accused of diving -- Branislav Ivanovic and Oscar.
Both foreigners. Is that by chance? Things get murkier. Suarez and Ronaldo are foreigners, and the accusation is repeatedly made that it is foreign players who have introduced diving, thus corrupting the English game that was, until then, as pure as the driven snow.
Sergio Aguero, the Argentine striker who plays for ManCity, evidently responding to the treatment of Suarez, made some mild comments on the situation. “It happens everywhere,” he said, “there is a little bit of privilege for players who come from the country where you are playing ... but if referees are suspicious of foreign players, that is not good for anyone ... it is not right that some should have a privilege that others don’t.”
Remarks that persuaded the canniest and the most experienced of the British coaches to join in the xenophobia. None other than Alex Ferguson who asserted that “down the years there have been plenty of players diving, and you have to say particularly foreign players.” This was rather awkward for Ferguson, who used to staunchly defend Ronaldo against diving charges, and has recently denied that his Portuguese winger Nani takes dives -- “Nani is not the type to dive, I know that.”
So Nani is not a diver. But Suarez, we are assured, is. The man doing the assuring is the London Times columnist Matthew Syed, who calls Suarez “a bit of a diver.” That, of course, is the famous British understatement. Examples of Suarez diving are “legion” says Syed, adding that Suarez “seems to simulate as part of a career plan.” Syed also makes the extraordinary claim, without adducing any proof at all, that “Suarez has won more dubious penalties than he has failed to win legitimate ones.” Syed’s tediously tendentious column ends up finding Suarez personally guilty of “fueling the cynicism surrounding the game.”
Syed’s sad attack on Suarez could be said to “fuel the cynicism of poor defenders” -- like Barnett and Ryan Shawcross, Stoke’s serial offender who was the “tackler” when Oscar got nailed for diving.
This is not a simple problem to deal with, and it certainly won’t disappear when confronted with Syed’s shallow moralizing. Another thing is that the problem appears to be most virulent in England. Is it such a huge problem elsewhere? It is not. Ronaldo, now playing in Spain, no longer has to put up with constant accusations of cheating.
Back to the matter of the English and skillful soccer. Neither Suarez nor Ronaldo would get a look in on an Allardyce or a Pulis team. When Allardyce wants a forward, he recruits the hulking Andy Carroll whose rustic playing style matches Allardyce’s primitive tactics. Pulis goes for Peter Crouch, at 6-foot-7 the ideal target man for long-ball play.
Is that what the English want, rather then the “pretty stuff”? Maybe it is. England coach Roy Hodgson -- who has all the attributes, both good and bad, of yesterday’s man -- has called up Carroll, and pressure is building for him to include Crouch. It is very hard to think of another national team -- one of any standing, that is -- that would select either player.
Another piece of evidence pointing to England’s rejection of not only skill, but creative artistry as well, is the continued lack in the EPL of top Brazilians. Given the number of key Brazilian players on so many teams from both western and eastern Europe, this needs some explaining. Why is England so obviously out of synch with the rest of Europe?