By Paul Gardner
It's a sickening state of affairs for soccer when, within the space of a few days, two of the sport's top coaches brazenly advertise the fact that they are appallingly bad losers.
Two coaches from the English Premier League (neither of them English as it happens, but that’s the EPL for you): Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson (you can, should you so wish, give him his toy title of Sir Alex -- I prefer not to).
Both coaches are enduring a pretty bumpy moment. Their teams are not operating as they should, and crucial games are being lost or only tied. Ferguson first: just five weeks ago, it seemed clear sailing for ManU to race away with the EPL title. Then came a totally unexpected loss at bottom-of-the-standings Wolves. It was quickly followed by two more losses at Chelsea and Liverpool, and ManU’s lead over Arsenal at the top of the standings is now only three points -- and Arsenal has a game in hand.
The Chelsea loss led to Ferguson making derogatory comments about the referee, Martin Atkinson. The strong implication of Ferguson’s words was that Atkinson was not an impartial referee. The English FA has reacted by charging Ferguson with “improper conduct” -- and Ferguson has announced that he will contest the charge.
In the meantime, Ferguson imposed a total ban -- for himself and everyone else, including players -- on talking to the media after the loss to Liverpool. It has become something of a habit for Ferguson to go after the referee when his team loses games. Or even when they win -- in 2008 he accosted referee Mike Dean on the field after a victory over Hull City when he thought Dean had got a number of decisions wrong.
In 2009, in a preview of the current dispute, Ferguson weighed into Atkinson after a loss to Chelsea -- the FA investigated and took no action. But the FA did act when Ferguson, in the same year, criticized referee Alan Wiley as being “not fit” after ManU had barely squeaked a 2-2 tie with Man City. That landed Ferguson with a four-game ban -- two were served immediately, the other two were suspended, but should Ferguson be found guilty on the current charge, those two games will be added to any punishment he may receive.
Looking at Ferguson’s most recent criticism of Atkinson -- that he should have ejected Chelsea’s David Luiz, and that the penalty kick that won the game for Chelsea was “soft -- Ferguson was surely correct on Luiz, but the penalty argument is fatuous -- what coach ever agreed with a PK call against his own team?
Or a red card call, for that matter. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, for all its undoubted devotion to skillful and attractive soccer, collects more red cards than most teams. The latest came against Barcelona on Tuesday. This red was the now notorious second yellow to Robin van Persie -- the one that reduced Arsenal to 10 men, the one that, according to Wenger, prevented Arsenal from advancing in the Champions League.
Referee Massimo Busacca decided that van Persie was guilty of belting the ball into the sign boards in frustration at being called offside. Which Busacca evidently interpreted as time-wasting. No, no said van Persie, I didn’t hear your whistle -- how could I with all these 95,000 fans yelling their heads off? That has to go down as one of the silliest get-outs yet. Just for that one moment in this game the ref’s whistle was inaudible? Because at no other time was there any suggestion, from any one, of crowd noise being a problem. That particular whistle, for what it’s worth, was very audible on the telecast.
But Wenger rants on about Busacca’s decision being “wrong” -- he even claims that UEFA should apologize for it. So everyone is against poor Arsenal. According to Wenger, “the first leg was fantastic.” He’s talking about the game in London, which Arsenal won 2-1. He could, of course, have admitted that the referee in that game made a dreadful error in nixing a perfectly valid Lionel Messi goal. But he didn’t -- just as Barcelona did not make a big deal of it. But the second leg, it seems, was “destroyed” by a call that Wenger didn’t like.
Frankly, humbug. Van Persie’s wild kick at the ball had the stamp of a frustrated player reacting instantly to a whistle he wished he hadn’t heard. Van Persie, already on a yellow, had looked to be in a nervously volatile mood -- so much so that TV commentator Graeme Souness had delivered his halftime wisdom that Wenger should get him off the field.
Wenger left him on. He lasted 11 minutes of the second half. Then came the red card, and Wenger asks us to believe that that was what lost the game for Arsenal. A decidedly flimsy claim, to put it mildly. We are, it seems, to forget that Arsenal did not conjure up a single shot on goal in the entire game, that it managed only 32 percent possession, that -- while the game was still 11 vs. 11 - it was virtually over-run by Barcelona, that the maligned referee Busacca allowed defender Laurent Koscielny to stay on the field, even though he clearly invited a second-yellow card on two occasions. And so on. A typical soccer game, with enough dodgy referee calls to exercise both coaches.
The actions and the words of both Ferguson and Wenger are deplorable. Ferguson, fearing that the EPL title is slipping away from his team, lands on the referees, yet avoids criticizing his own player, Wayne Rooney, who got away, unpunished, with an elbow to the face of Wigan’s James McCarthy. Wenger, too, blames the referee as Arsenal is knocked out of the Champions League; his player, van Persie, did nothing wrong -- but Wenger has become famous for never having seen any fouls committed by his own players.
So these are the top coaches, the shining examples of their profession, both presenting a squalid image as thoroughly bad losers. They didn’t lose the games -- the referees robbed them. Credit to their opponents? Forget that, too.
Sadly, we are getting used to this sort of thing. Jose Mourinho has shown the way. Back in 2005, when Mourinho’s Chelsea was beaten by Barcelona, his vicious criticism of referee Anders Frisk led to Frisk retiring from the game when he decided that he didn’t need the abuse and the threats encouraged by Mourinho’s vendetta.
Sportsmanship? Fair play? Ferguson and Wenger should be ashamed. Indeed, they were shamed on Thursday, by the AC Milan CEO, Adriano Galliani. After Milan had been knocked out of the Champions League by Tottenham in a game that Milan had dominated and in which it had been denied a crucial goal on a very close goal-line call by the referee, Galliani had this to say: “We were five centimeters from scoring ... We need to have the maturity to accept this loss ...”
Just a few calm words -- really, all that are necessary to silence the torrents of venomous verbiage spewed out by Ferguson and Wenger. The profession of coaching was, perhaps, once upon a time, a creditable one, or at least a credible one. Today it struggles to be either.
Credibility? Week after week we listen to the same corny old explanations for games lost, the same vapid boasts about games won, the tinpot tactical explanations and the evasions and the excuses, and we watch the increasingly frenetic sideline leapings and cavortings of those who want, desperately, to be noticed. None of that is particularly honorable.
Galliani is not a coach, so he is relatively free from the constraints of this benighted profession. His statement encompasses sportsmanship and fair play, where Ferguson and Wenger have trampled all over those qualities. In addition, Galliani’s words have something that the celebrity coaches seem to shun. Seem to want to shun. Dignity.