By Paul Gardner
Goalkeepers. Once again getting special treatment. This time it's Brad Friedel. An American keeper who has had -- continues to have -- a wonderful career
in the English Premier League. Unquestionably one of the top goalkeepers in the league, widely respected as the consummate professional.
I can add my own admiration here -- for it was
Friedel who started the only academy that I know of where the boys were not charged a hefty fee. They were not charged at all -- that was Friedel's aim. If things haven't quite worked out as planned,
that in no way diminishes the nobility of Friedel's vision.
In the EPL, Friedel is in pursuit of a remarkable record: he has played 182 consecutive games -- more than anyone else - and is
obviously in line to become the first-ever player to reach the 200 mark. Friedel is now well ahead of his nearest competitor, David James, who has 166 consecutive appearances. The fact that both are
goalkeepers tells you something about playing that position -- I'll leave you to work it out.
But this past weekend, Friedel's run appeared to have come to a close when he was red-carded
during Aston Villa's disastrous 0-5 loss to Liverpool. Friedel had already let in four goals when he brought down Fernando Torres -- penalty kick and red card to Friedel said referee Martin Atkinson.
The red card meant an automatic one-game suspension for Friedel -- and goodbye to his hopes for a 200-game record.
But all was not lost. No doubt aware that red cards to goalkeepers are
rare indeed, Friedel appealed to the Football Association, and in no time at all, the red card was canceled. Friedel's run of games will continue, uninterrupted.
This business of
appealing against red cards seems to be becoming habitual in England. Earlier this season, John Terry -- with high-powered legal backing -- got a red-card reversed. On the same day that Friedel was
pronounced innocent another red card (to Sunderland's defender George McCartney) was also overturned.
The Terry incident was particularly disturbing, for Terry's foul was blatant, even
dangerous. No matter, he got off. And now the Friedel escape -- and I'm sorry to say, this is another appalling decision by the FA.
This one, in fact, is so bad that the top referees --
part of the Professional Game Match Officials, Ltd -- have reportedly written to the FA demanding an explanation. That is a highly unusual occurrence.
The only explanation forthcoming is
that the FA accepted Friedel's plea that he was actually trying to get out of Torres' way. This is such pathetically absurd nonsense that it should have been quickly thrown out.
Torres dribbles the ball into the penalty area -- Friedel comes out and goes to ground to snare the ball -- he doesn't get it because his timing is atrocious -- Torres gets there first, plays the ball
-- and immediately and unavoidably crashes into Friedel's body. The collision -- which obviously stopped Torres from continuing his action -- was caused entirely by Friedel's misjudgment. A clear
foul, a clear denial of a scoring opportunity for Torres. The replays show Friedel -- on the ground -- turning his back as Torres collides with him. Trying to get out of the way? At a pinch you could
interpret it that way. But so what? His efforts were unsuccessful -- were bound
to be unsuccessful -- because there was no time or space for Friedel to move in.
And we got
Villa's coach, Martin O'Neill, confirming what one always suspects -- that coaches simply do not know the rules of the game: This is O'Neill: "From Brad's viewpoint, I don't think he went out and made
a deliberate attempt to upend him [Torres]." This business of being "deliberate," of "intention" was taken out of the rules over 10 years ago. It is irrelevant.
What matters is whether
Friedel caused the collision, whether he was reckless in doing so -- and, in this case -- did he prevent a clear scoring opportunity? The answer to all three questions is obviously Yes.
How the FA can accept Friedel's lame excuse -- and use it to undermine the referee, who made the correct call -- certainly does need an explanation.
Rescinding red cards should not be
this easy. This was a case of referee Atkinson's opinion against Friedel's explanation. Atkinson's case was far stronger -- yet the FA belittles him. And yet again, it's a defender (the other two
cases mentioned above were also defenders) who benefits.
The deeper danger, of course, is that EPL referees will be loath to give red cards -- especially to goalkeepers. Why run the risk
of public humiliation when the card is rescinded? Better to let the fouling continue.