By Paul Gardner
I must say, for at least the 10,000th time, that it is a decided scandal that so few players are familiar with the rules of soccer. (I could add TV commentators to the culprits list, but most of those are ex-players, so their ignorance is to be expected).
A scandal, then -- but also a shame, something to be regretted, because knowledgeable players might well have a positive effect on the way that the game is played. And refereed.
We need to make the trip to Seattle for a good example of what I mean. Now, Seattle is not a place where I expect to find much common sense about the rules. The Seattle view is that the rules, and the refereeing, are good only when they work to the Sounders’ advantage. Reversing that, we get the unpleasant implication that when the Sounders lose, the refereeing must have been shite.
As an overall philosophy of the game that is just neither tenable nor constructive. It surfaces at its most vindictive, of course, when the Sounders are struggling. Which they clearly are right now.
But this time, the Sounders, or one of their players, has got it exactly right. The player is Clint Dempsey, and the fault he is complaining of is the tactical (sometimes called the professional) foul. Specifically, a foul committed in a recent game by the Portland Timbers’ Diego Chara on Dempsey. The foul was, shall we say, brusque -- Dempsey suffered a shoulder sprain as he went to ground.
The foul was called, but that was all. No card. Dempsey later said he was disappointed that Chara was not shown a yellow. His reasoning: “I think the refs need to do a better job when people make those kinds of tackles. It’s on the counterattack, it is stopping the attack and most of the time those are situations where you get the yellow card.”
Dempsey is absolutely correct that any player committing such a tactical foul should be yellow-carded. But he is surely wrong to say that “most of the time” that is what happens. If only.
Dempsey has an important point to make, but he weakens it in two ways. To start with, he is evidently unaware that the rulebook supports him -- unequivocally. It states that a player mustbe cautioned when he “commits a foul for the tactical purpose of interfering with or breaking up a promising attack.”
So we have to assume that, in this case, referee Hilario Grajeda did not judge the foul to be a tactical one. A pretty atrocious collapse of judgment, frankly.
Tactical fouling is rife in the modern game -- far more frequent than the dreaded diving, and a far more disruptive element in the game. And every player on every team knows that the earlier he fouls an opponent on a breakaway, the more likely he is to get away with it. Taking down an opponent as he begins to sprint upfield from his own penalty area -- when he’s some 60 yards away from the enemy goal -- well, the referee probably won’t find that a case of “breaking up an promising attack,” so a card is unlikely.
Chara’s foul was committed just inside the Portland half, as Dempsey began to turn on the burners. As Dempsey sped away, Chara lunged in with no chance of getting the ball and flagrantly tripped him. Grajeda ran up, called the foul, and then did exactly what no referee should ever do in such a circumstance. He delivered a short lecture to Chara. Why? The foul was blatant, it was dangerous -- the yellow card should have been out at once for a reckless challenge -- quite apart from the tactical aspect.
Frankly, this was very poor refereeing. If Grajeda didn’t see the tactical intent of the foul, TV commentator Taylor Twellman did at once. He then broadcast to his audience, young players and everyone, that there is no place for sportsmanship in modern soccer by praising Chara: “That’s a good foul because Clint Dempsey had him beat.”
A good foul. Way to go, Taylor. That snickering praise for a player who has just gained an advantage for his team by cynically breaking the rules of the game represents the second way in which Dempsey undermines his excellent point, because he went on to call Chara’s foul a “smart foul.”
Dempsey brings up a vital point about the playing of the game of soccer, one that is too often evaded by referees. Yellow cards for tactical fouls -- wherever and whenever on the field they are committed -- mustbe given. Said Dempsey: “When you start reffing in that way, it changes the way people play. They aren’t going to be as reckless, they are going to be more controlled and they have to be more careful when they go to ground and the fouls that they commit. That’s how I look at it.”
That’s more like it. The pity is that Dempsey seems not to know that the rulebook is on his side here. And surely working against him is his own praise of such fouls.
MLS could quite easily do something about this. A clear directive, at the start of next season, proclaiming zero-tolerance (and that means an end to those dopy little referee lectures) for tactical fouling would set the tone nicely.