By Paul Gardner
No one wanted anything like this to happen, for sure. Steve Zakuani, one of the few, the very few classy attacking players to come out of college ... out for the season with a broken leg; and David Ferreira, last season’s league MVP, also out for the season, with a broken ankle.
No, no one wanted this to happen. But there are those whose words and actions made it almost inevitable that something like this would happen.
Naming names is irrelevant here -- they know who they are, and we know who they are. Coaches and players who like to go on about the physical game, and how MLS is “a physical league.” The words pass their lips with great facility, rarely if ever are they uttered as a criticism. Quite the opposite -- the underlying tone is one of approval. Hey, this is a man’s league, see how tough we all are.
Now, suddenly, dramatically, tragically, those chickens of violence have come home to roost. Two fine, exciting, skillful players have been packed off to the hospital.
That is bad enough. But how obscenely tiresome it is to hear the excuses offered immediately, almost thoughtlessly, on behalf of the players whose tackles caused the injuries.
Brian Mullan’s foul on Zakuani was quite horrendous. Inexcusable. Yet, as we’re watching Zakuani in pain on the field, we’re treated to a nauseating paean from TV commentator Kyle Martino instructing us that Mullan “is not a dirty player” and so on and disgracefully on.
Martino, apparently, does not have the sensitivity to know when it is simply better to keep quiet about the aggressor. Instead, he wants us to sympathize with Mullan, while Zakuani is stretchered off the field.
Later, maybe. Though I’m not at all sure sympathy is in order for Mullan. We’ve seen him do this sort of thing before. During Colorado’s playoff run last year, he committed a very similar foul on Columbus star Guillermo Barros Schelotto -- a violent sliding tackle, so determined and vicious that there was no question of it being accidental contact. Schelotto -- who had also been, in 2008, league’s MVP -- was very lucky indeed not to have suffered the same fate as Zakuani.
Speaking about the Zakuani incident after the game, Mullan mumbled his way through a feeble apology, which included this gem: “It’s a tackle I’ve done hundreds of times, and I’d probably do again” ... showing that he understands, and has learned, precisely nothing. His coach, Gary Smith, did only slightly better. He admitted the tackle was “rash ... late” but quickly lapsed into praise for Mullan as a “very committed” player. Right. A useful euphemism when it comes to masking thuggery.
Smith even managed to come up with the cliche of all cliches for these situations, saying that Mullan is “not that sort of player.” Well, of course he’s not -- I’ve never heard a coach describe any player as “that sort of player,” so apparently they don’t exist.
And in a way, that’s quite correct. Because the defenders of physical play have such a weak case that they have to invent accusations against them that are rarely made. Do I consider Mullan a dirty player? No, despite what I’ve seen of him over the years, I’m perfectly willing to take Martino’s word for it that Mullan is not a dirty player.
The accusation against Mullan & Co is quite different. It is that Mullan -- and far, far too many players in the physical MLS -- are reckless players, or clumsy players, or thoughtless players ... players likely to be dangerous to opponents. But no one, certainly not the macho proponents who salivate at the thought of body contact, calls them dangerous players. We get more euphemisms, these guys are great competitors, they’re hard-nosed, they take no prisoners ... all terms that are uttered with barely concealed approval.
MLS can, should it so decide, increase Mullan’s punishment for his red card (an automatic one-game suspension). The case of Jonathan Leathers, the Vancouver defender involved in the Ferreira incident, is less clear. While Mullan was red-carded for his blatant violence, the Leathers tackle was not even called as a foul. Yet the tackle was clearly, shall we say, full-blooded ... in fact, it was the typical tackle so admired by the pro-physical mob, a powerful slide, studs up of course, into the ball. These are manifestly dangerous tackles -- so the English have come up with yet another euphemism, lumping them under the overall description of “getting stuck in” -- how’s that for a nice, sturdy, red-blooded approach to the game?
All well and good -- except that these slides nearly always end up making dangerous contact with the players being tackled, as seems to have happened here.
It is surely time, past time, to rein in this irresponsible insistence on a physical league. How bad have things gotten? This is hardly the moment for humor, but it was -- almost -- comical to listen to young Richard Eckersley, who has just joined Toronto. Eckersley has been playing in the English third division -- where they know plenty about physical play -- yet, interviewed after his first MLS game on Saturday, he was clearly surprised at how physical the game had been.
Toronto’s Alan Gordon remarked recently that “if we want to compete we’re going to have to be physical.” Gordon is a big man, without any noticeably exceptional soccer skills. The sort of guy who talks up the physical game. You will not hear a Lionel Messi or a Cesc Fabregas or a Kaka or, yes, a Steve Zakuani or a David Ferreira, singing the praises of physical play.
What makes the pro-physical approach so obnoxious is that its proponents will simply not face up to what they wreak. I have no hesitation in saying that those who encourage physical play bear an important part of the responsibility for the injuries to Zakuani and Ferreira. They are therefore responsible for the fact that MLS -- a league in great need of exciting attacking players -- will now be forced to do without two of them for the rest of the season.
I referred to the English term “getting stuck in” and it is largely the English influence that we can thank for the way that MLS has evolved as a physical league.
There is no secret here. The English are not trying to hide anything -- they are proud of their macho approach. The fact that it has been totally unsuccessful at the world level for nearly 45 years presents them with a bit of a problem, but they profess to see no connection -- what might be called tactical blindness.
This pernicious English, or British, influence is now pervasive in the USA -- because of television. We have ESPN, under the clueless guidance of their resident soccer genius Jed Drake, presenting us with nothing but Brit commentators. And over at Fox they have their own cabal of Brits, backed up by a resident posse of Americans, the wannabee-Brits.
Because so many of the Brit commentators are ex-players, we can hear, all the time, example after example of earthy Brit attitudes to roughhouse play. Which always, either blatantly or by insinuation, tend to approve. At the same time, we get the reverse side of the coin, which likes to belittle skillful play as merely “pretty,” or over-elaboration, and to single out the skillful players as divers and injury-fakers.
One might have thought, from the TV commentator remarks, that while Cristiano Ronaldo played for ManU, all he did was to dive, so persistently was he accused of flopping. How strange that, now that Ronaldo has moved on to Spain, we hear no more of this -- neither from the English nor the Spanish.
Fouls? Well, yes, occasionally players are admitted to have fouled, but equally likely is that the player who has been kicked to the ground is faking it -- “he went down too easily,” or “he was looking for it” (with the ludicrous implication that English soccer is so pure that a player needs to somehow entice an opponent into fouling him). Anyway, welcome to two more lovely Brit euphemisms to exculpate thuggery -- phrases that we hear so often that they are likely to enter our subconscious.
Yesterday morning, we saw Bolton’s Kevin Davies commit a pretty bad physical foul on Arsenal’s Alex Song. The referee failed to give a yellow card (which he surely should have done), and the commentator remarked that Davies is “well-known for his robust approach.” A criticism? If it is, why does it sound more like praise?
Last week we had a similar episode from Adrian Healey -- one of ESPN’s Brit bunch -- who, having witnessed the Red Bulls’ Luke Rodgers (a Brit, incidentally) aim a round-house punch at DC defender Dejan Jakovic, remarked that Rodgers “has always been a feisty character ...” Again, a “criticism” that sounds much more like admiration.
Ian Darke, ESPN’s Head Brit, had his say on this matter during the World Cup, when he lamented that referees were calling too many fouls -- “I feel sorry for defenders sometimes, it’s almost like tackling’s bad.” That comes from someone who made his name as a boxing commentator.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber, to his great credit, made it plain at the beginning of this season, that he was not happy with the attitudes that were developing in MLS. His call for a refereeing clampdown was always likely to fall on stony ground, for referees do not change their habits very quickly.
But this past weekend should have created enough of a crisis for Garber to read the riot act -- not so much to the referees as to the coaches. The Brian Mullans of this world do not play the game like run-away bulldozers unless they have the overt, or more likely the silent, approval of their coaches. Coaches should be made to share responsibility for any serious damage inflicted by their players.
Until that happy day arrives -- and I am not holding my breath -- we can look forward to an MLS season deprived of two of its most exciting players and we can only wonder, with fear and trembling, who will be the next victim of the Brit-induced machismo blight.