Horror fouls - coaches should not escape scrutiny

By Paul Gardner

So now we know. Brian Mullan, for his horrific foul on Steve Zakuani, gets a 10-game suspension. A sentence that will, no doubt, set off an earnest debate. Has the MLS Disciplinary Committee been too harsh on Mullan? Or not harsh enough?

There is always going to be a feeling in these cases that it would be fair, and justice would be nicely done, if the aggressor were suspended until the opponent he crippled is ready to make his comeback.

When I say “in these cases” I’m not referring to cases of incidental, or accidental, injury -- but only to those where there is evidence of either intent or blatant recklessness. In Mullan’s case, I cannot see how there can be any doubt. Forget “intent”, which is almost impossible to define. Intent to go in hard on Zakuani? Definitely. Intent to break his leg? No, not that.

Where Mullan is abundantly guilty is on the charge of recklessness. MLS decided that his foul was “reckless, egregious, and showed utter disregard for the safety of his opponent.” This is baffling, because although it sounds like a heavy judgment, it uses words that, in the FIFA rules, apply to non-red-card fouls.

Rule 12 defines “Reckless” in this way: “Reckless means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.” The problem being that, for such behavior, the rules stipulate only a yellow card, not a red. The severity of the MLS decision therefore, presumably, hinges on the word “egregious” -- a word that needs a definition in this context.

We know the non-legal meaning of the word, and presumably that is what we’re dealing with here -- something flagrant, particularly bad. But evidently not bad enough to warrant a really lengthy suspension. Satisfying as it would seem to make the aggressor’s punishment fit his victim’s suffering, there are obvious difficulties in applying such a sentence. Anyway, how do you compensate for the pain, for the hospital stay, the mental anguish, the recovery therapy?

But ruling out some form of punishment linked directly to the suffering of the victim still leaves plenty of room for heavy punishment. What’s wrong with a season-long suspension? Or 20 games?

One wonders how the figure of 10 games was arrived at. Probably it is a compromise -- in which case it is a poor decision. As a compromise between those who would like a lengthy suspension, and those who might be satisfied with the minimum 1-game suspension, 10 games does not sound right. It is too close to the minimum. Twenty games is more like it -- a harsh penalty for a particularly atrocious piece of thuggery. The addition of a fine is no doubt considered necessary, but it has to be meaningful -- the nugatory $5,000 assessed against Mullan is hardly likely to send a stern message.

But the punishment should not stop there. It is considerably irksome to see that Mullan’s foul is considered to be his responsibility, and his alone. If his assault on Zakuani were an isolated incident, totally at odds with the way that Mullan normally plays, then, OK, a case can be made for his sole responsibility.

But that is not a sustainable argument. Mullan spent most of last season -- certainly in the games he played after joining the Rapids late in the season -- charging about the field with formidable energy. A sight to delight those coaches who believe that work rate and commitment are the qualities that really matter in this sport.

Maybe so. But another way of looking at Mullan’s frantic activity was with considerable apprehension. The way he was playing -- to take but one example, but a pretty frightening one, his awful foul on Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the playoffs against Columbus -- strongly suggested that trouble was brewing.

I would find it difficult to believe that anyone was actually surprised that Mullan had climaxed his hyperactive style by committing a dreadful foul.

Colorado coach Gary Smith can no doubt tell us why Mullan has been allowed to continue playing in such a reckless way. Then again, do we really need to ask that of a coach who has, in his midfield -- in addition to Mullan -- Jeff Larentowicz, Jamie Smith and Pablo Mastroeni?

It comes down to just that, a matter of style, or a lack of it. How ironic -- not to mention farcical -- it is to recall that when Smith took over at the Rapids in 2008 he told us that it was his aim to have the team playing like Arsenal. Instead, we’ve had a team where aggression takes the place of style, a team that its own players openly laud as being “blue collar” -- something diametrically opposite to what Arsenal represent.

I do believe that coaches should share responsibility for their own players’ conduct. They do, after all, get plenty of criticism when their tactics go wrong, and they get plenty of praise when they get things right. There is not much doubt, then, that the modern coach is viewed as having a great deal of influence on the way that his team plays and on the way that his players conduct themselves.

At this point, we run into the same obfuscation that surrounds a player who commits a dangerous foul: that of intent. The players will heatedly deny that they intended to hurt anyone -- and we should assume that they are telling the truth. But the accusation is not of malicious intent, it is of recklessness.

Similarly with the coaches, we should believe their denials that they ever send their players out to kick opponents. But, again, that is not the accusation. The charge here is that a physical style of play has been chosen, and that physical players have been recruited to put it onto practice. Beyond that, it is probably inevitable that physical players who have been enlisted to be physical will, at some point -- even without having to be actively encouraged -- become overly physical. From which the virtual certainty of injuries arises.

But the proponents of the physical game never feel any responsibility for the mayhem they may create. Another of Smith’s highly physical players is Tyrone Marshall. He has pronounced what happened to Zakuani as a freak accident. This ridiculous verdict comes from a player who, when he was with the Los Angeles Galaxy back in 2007, produced his own “freak accident” -- a tackle that broke the leg of Dallas forward Kenny Cooper.

When a coach, like Colorado’s Smith, decides to play a physical game, he needs to take into consideration the likelihood of physical play becoming dangerous play, and to take steps to ensure that his players don’t overstep the mark. In Mullan’s case it seems pretty clear that Smith did not do this.

His defense of Mullan is frankly pathetic, praising him as “very committed” and then rolling out the tired and irrelevant “he didn’t intend to hurt Zakuani” line. One might wonder -- has Smith looked at the replays? Or has he heard Mullan blandly stating that he’ll probably make this sort of tackle again?

When teams playing physically cause injuries, the coach, as the mentor, must share the responsibility. While I do not think Mullan’s 10-game suspension was harsh enough, I also believe that it is quite wrong for him to be the only one to be punished, because Gary Smith should have been alongside him in the dock.

11 comments about "Horror fouls - coaches should not escape scrutiny".
  1. Paul Lorinczi, April 29, 2011 at 8:30 a.m.

    Smith is partly to blame. You have to think that a tactical decision was to slow Zakuani down. While Mullin committed the foul, Zakuani's speed was most likely a concern for Smith.

  2. Albert Harris, April 29, 2011 at 8:36 a.m.

    It's probably a sign of how bad things are that I was surprised that the suspension was for 10 games. I never thought he'd get more than 5. So far as fines are concerned, the players never pay them; the teams always find a way to pick up the tab. If you're going to try to stop this via fines, they should be charged against the club directly and be substantial in an attempt to force the employer to stop the 'hard men' from ruining the sport. Minimum fine for something as reckless as Mullen's would be $100,000 in my opinion!

  3. lorenzo murillo, April 29, 2011 at 8:43 a.m.

    This pervasive physical game that coaches preach is also present in youth soccer. Coaches are responsible for their players in the pitch, and I agree, that the coach should be punished too.

  4. carlos ordonez, April 29, 2011 at 9:04 a.m.

    Major leagues (starting with FIFA) should explore to criminally charge players (thugs) and impose severe sanctions to their club team when the player continues to commit a serious infraction.

    It is a shame to desensitize ourselves from the seriousness of the repercussions to the injured players, and how our teenagers are affected by this going forward. One thing is to play tough, another to play reckless and dirty.

  5. Gus Keri, April 29, 2011 at 10:34 a.m.

    What bothered me even more is the fact that in the post-game interview on FSC, coach Smith didn't mention Zakuani's name. He called him "the individual". Here you have a player who had his leg broken and would likely miss the rest of the season and he doesn't get the name recognition from the opponent's caoch. What do you call that?

  6. Bubba McBubba, April 29, 2011 at 11:41 a.m.

    I've got to agree - the team should voluntarily bench Mullan until Zakuani's return, or the league should make them do so.

    Anything less will just encourage more of the same kind of behavior in the future.

  7. Dayton Owens, April 29, 2011 at 4:19 p.m.

    It is an embarrassment for the MLS to have this garbage happening on the field at what is supposed to be a professional level. Please note that there is a tremendous difference between a professional foul and a hack job. Again we are seeing the beautiful game and the players who are creative and skillful punished for this quality by inferior hacks who are told to foul by the coaches to slow them down.

    Take a look at the Sporting KC GM & Coach Peter Vermes interview by the KC Star this past week. In it it describes that he has finally got his kind of team. Big, strong, tough except for Omar Bravo who is hurt already - smaller skillful player go figure. So Sporting KC leads the league in red cards with 3 in 5 games.
    I totally agree that coaches should get fined and suspended when they allow players to play reckless.
    I have coached at many levels over 30 years and I would yank a player out of the game and sit him when I saw hurtful actions. It got the message across you do that crap you don't play.
    When I recruited for college I wanted fast skillful players who could out run the goon squads waiting for them in defense. I believe in Attacking football not destructive like most of the MLS but RSL. Coaches need to be tossed out of games for their players actions then watch the games get cleaner.

  8. Kent James, April 29, 2011 at 4:22 p.m.

    As inexcusable as Mullan's foul was, I don't think it was tactical. I think Mullan was reacting to the fact that he was not given a foul a few seconds earlier, so I think this was his opportunity to show the ref what a "real foul" was. As for the punishment, Gardner is right, 10 games is insufficient. For a fine to be meaningful, it should be a percentage of the player's salary. To make the club feel the pain inflicted by thuggish play, fine them a similar percentage of their revenue (or profit, or ticket sales, or some other quantifiable number). That might make them think twice about employing thugs. One minor quibble with Gardner's column; he seems to equate high work rate and committed play with thuggishness, and that is not necessarily so. For example, Barcelona has a very high work rate (and I would argue they are very aggressive attacking the ball), but they're clearly not thugs. So yes, sometimes work rate and commitment make up for a lack of skill but they do not cause a lack of skill.

  9. Brian Something, April 29, 2011 at 7:36 p.m.

    I disagree that it was because of a tactical decision by the coach. It was because Brian Mullan lost his mind. If you watch the sequence, Mullan was pissed off that he thought he was fouled but it wasn't called. If you watch his reaction, it was clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he got up and was intent on cleaning out the next person that came into his line of vision that was wearing a green shirt. I don't believe it had anything to do with tactics or Zakuani in particular. That kind of reaction to not getting a call is beyond unacceptable and I find 10 games to be completely appropriate.

  10. Steven Erickson, April 29, 2011 at 7:59 p.m.

    Mullan is nothing more than a lousy, cheap thug. MLS community would be improved without him in it.

  11. Joe Shoulders, April 29, 2011 at 8:47 p.m.

    all good points ... too many coaches pick too many players like Mullan. So tactical doesn't always mean it's something said in the pregame talk. Tactical is also something that's exposed just by the players you select on your roster. MLS and MLS clubs need to think a bit deeper when it comes to the coaching positions.

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