The More Things Change ...

OK, clamber into your Time Capsule -- we’re swooshing back a few decades, back to Thursday May 6, 1976. Open up your New York Times on that day, turn to page 57 (in the early edition -- soccer stories soon got replaced in those days) -- and you'd find an article headed "Expert Looks at U.S. Soccer and He Doesn’t Like Brutality." The byline on the story is Paul Gardner. Yes, I was the expert, though I didn’t write that cumbersome headline. I’d wanted “The Wrath of Pele” -- and you’ll understand why if you read on. Here is what that 35-year-old article said:

* * * * *

NEW YORK TIMES, Thursday May 5, 1976

Expert Looks at U.S. Soccer, and He Doesn’t Like Brutality

By Paul Gardner

Two weeks ago, more than a million New Yorkers watched the telecast of the New York Cosmos-Miami Toros soccer game. And they saw something that I -- and, I am sure, the people who run the North American Soccer League -- would rather they had not seen.

They saw Pele running full speed past the ball and launching himself at the legs of a Miami defender. An ugly and dangerous foul, one for which Pele should surely have been cautioned, if not ejected from the game.

Yet, had he been ordered off, travesty would have been added to tragedy because Pele’s assault was the almost inevitable climax to an afternoon in which he had been repeatedly kicked and knocked down. It was, in short, retaliation for almost 90 minutes of cynically brutal play by the Miami defenders, all of it taking place under the inexplicably lenient eye of referee Gordon Hill.

I have no idea what possessed Hill (widely thought of as the best referee in this country) to allow the roughness to develop to flash point, but he may, unwittingly, have done us all a favor. For Pele’s explosion dramatically focuses attention on a very real problem facing the NASL this season.

Some of the world’s top players are members of the league, players such as Pele, George Best, Rodney Marsh, Ramon Mifflin, Giorgio Chinaglia and Bobby Moore. Ironically, they are the ones creating the problem. For their arrival has given the league a dangerously unbalanced shape.

The highly skilled world-class players make up the top end of the league’s skill spectrum. At the bottom end there are, alas, far too many players who are, to put it charitably, undertalented.

It is a volatile mixture of the best and, if not the worst, certainly the not-good-enough.

The danger, as I see it, is that the inferior players, feeling themselves outclassed, will resort to rough play. Forgive the orthodox euphemism; I mean that they will start kicking opponents rather than the ball.

Of course, I am not so naive as to imagine that I have discovered anything new here. And that is one of the things that puzzles me most about the situation. I know -- as league officials know, and as the players and coaches and surely the referees know -- that there are players in the league who have the reputation of being kickers. And that there are teams that play what is described -- again euphemistically -- as a “physical” or an “aggressive” game.

What they are doing is clearly illegal under soccer’s rules. So why are they allowed to get away with it?

Those who love soccer and want to see it thrive in this country have often made the point that it is a sport in which there are few serious injuries. This is true when soccer is properly played. But when scantily padded players are given license to kick each other and to tackle violently, the risk of serious injury becomes much greater. Can we encourage parents to send their children out to play that sort of game?

There is clearly a Gresham’s Law of Soccer: bad soccer will drive out good soccer. Violent play is a serious threat to the game itself. It has to be stopped.

This is where I think the NASL. is presented with a magnificent opportunity. Nothing less than the chance to become the world leader in the campaign to clean up soccer. Why shouldn’t the NASL be known as the league where gifted players are protected, where their skills are allowed to flourish? Players like Pele and Best have to be protected, not because they are famous names or because they cost their clubs a lot of money, but because they are trying to play soccer the way it should be played.

How to protect them? I believe that a substantial proportion of the trouble would be eliminated if referees would be much harsher in penalizing the “tackle from behind.”

* * * * *

Swoosh. Back to the present. Back to a league, MLS, that is now managing to duplicate, in a quite shocking way, the problem I described 35 years ago. A league that is sabotaging its own chances of success by presenting a dangerously physical version of the sport. Four of its best players are now sidelined, with horrendous injuries resulting from reckless fouls. More than likely, they will be out for the rest of the season. Then -- who knows? Full recovery can never be assured from broken leg or a smashed ankle.

What kind of a league is this, what kind of players and referees and administrators does it have that there has not been an outcry against the carnage? Why has Commissioner Don Garber, who started the season so well with his appeal for referees to be more severe in their calling of physical fouls, who made the strong case for better protection of skilled players, why has he not been heard from? Is it asking too much that MLS coaches, as a group, could not get together and issue a joint statement deploring the situation? Ditto for the referees.

Well, yes, it is asking too much. All we get from coaches are paeans to their own players, none of whom, bet your life on it, would ever dream of hurting anyone. And referees are a notoriously supine species when it comes to collective action.

My suggestion, back in 1976, that the tackle from behind should be harshly punished was probably not strong enough, even in those days. In fact, FIFA was shortly to make a big deal of its intention to ban it completely. But that never happened, and now we’re back where we started -- in fact we’ve regressed because the rules now make no mention of there being anything especially, or uniquely, heinous about such a tackle. Even the wording making it very clear that to play the man before getting the ball is a foul has been removed from the rules.

Today, because the overall question of the problems posed by physical play has never been squarely faced up to, we have a sport that far too often does not even come close to exhibiting its brilliance. A game that allows its refined skills to be trampled on by physical -- and reckless -- play.

To ask, as I did in 1976, and Garber has done this season, that the referees clamp down on violence is evidently not going to improve matters. What is needed is a much more ruthless look at the role coaches play in all this, what they expect from their own players, and -- more tellingly -- what they require of their own players.

If coaches feel they have a strong case for employing physical players, often crudely physical players, then let’s hear it from them, let them state their case clearly. It may carry some weight -- but that weight can be convincing in only one sense: That the game itself now requires physical players. If that’s the case, then we know to stop wasting our time harassing referees and coaches -- and players.

The problem then becomes one of looking at the basic structure of the game itself, and its rules. As a start, you can ask yourself: When was the last time that FIFA did that -- in a serious manner? You may find yourself answering that FIFA has never done that.

But we’ve reached a point where the problem does go deep into the roots and history of the sport. They have to do with the very soul of the sport. The game as envisaged by English Victorian gentlemen in 1863 may well not be a game suitable for 2011. But we do not have to accept that the inevitable changes in soccer must slowly deprive it of its very own, unique skills and move it closer and closer to rollerball.

13 comments about "The More Things Change ...".
  1. John Carlisle, May 13, 2011 at 8:27 a.m.

    I could not agree more. However, I see the solution as two-fold. First, MLS needs to take control over the referees to ensure consistency and that this type of play will not be tolerated. Second, start fining teams for cumulative cards, e.g., the first yellow is free, the second $1,000, the third, $2,000, the fourth $5,000 and so on. When the owners have to take money out of their pockets, the effects should "trickle down" Add to that a stricter enforcement of the rules and if the physical teams have to start playing with 10 or 9 men, the message should become clearer.

  2. tim francis, May 13, 2011 at 8:42 a.m.

    Thanks for the call from the 'rat race' to sanity, Paul. I hope the spirit you becken-- of the artist/sportsman athlete/referee/coach-- wakes up to fight the spirit of the 'rat race': the over-challenged, greedy, and violent. Barcelona, while not perfect, shows a great competing team that does it with class and craft, rather than violence. Contrast Real Madrid, that has the potential skill to win everything, yet resorts to violence to win, and loses to the team that places higher priority in artistry and team play. In parralel, USA's ecomomic engine--also challenged by the ME vs. TEAM balance, should take a hint from countries that outshine the US in most health and ecomomic stats through stong consistent skillful 'TEAM SHARING' tax and regulation policies.

  3. Brian Something, May 13, 2011 at 8:54 a.m.

    One of the reasons France and Spain produce world class attacking players is because their referees call fouls. One of the reasons England does not anymore is because their refs do not. So which model do we follow?

  4. Joe Hosack, May 13, 2011 at 8:56 a.m.

    Well done Paul, sad to say you needed to show this LACK of progress 35 years later. Gee, I wonder why the previous leagues FOLDED? Not the product the customers wanted?

  5. Gerald Laing, May 13, 2011 at 9:09 a.m.

    Very well done Paul. I may not always agree with you but you were spot on in this article. I do like that the MLS is starting to suspend the Neanderthals for long periods, but it is after the fact and the damage has been done. At first it seemed like the MLS referees were going to take care of it by the use of cards but after some ejections for taking jerseys off after goals it looked like they lost the plot. I like John's idea about fines for card accumulation but make the coaches pay it. Maybe that will take the problem head on.

  6. Brent Crossland, May 13, 2011 at 10:55 a.m.

    The 4 match ban issued to Chivas striker Mondaini is a perfect example of the mixed signals that MLS sends. Apparently the official MLS position was that, although it was clearly a tackle from behind that endangered the safety of the opponent, Mondaini took the action in an attempt to prevent Morales from scoring so the tackle didn't warrant the more severe punishment given to previous miscreants.

    I don't contend that Mondaini had any INTENT to injure Morales but he clearly did not consider Morales' safety when he slid in from behind. The photos show that there was no conceivable way that Mondaini was going to win the ball, so the tackle WAS a deliberate attempt to bring Morales down.

    The severity of the injury isn't a consideration in the on-field decision to send Mondaini off, but I would argue that it should be part of the decision making process when MLS issues it's ruling. Mondaini was willing to risk injury to Morales in order to prevent the scoring opportunity. He may not have anticipated the severity of the injury but Chivas benefited and RSL & their fans will suffer the consequences for quite some time.

    Chivas & Mondaini (and the rest of the league) should have been sent a clear message that an opponent's scoring opportunity does not absolve a defender from his responsibility to consider the safety of his opponent.

  7. Albert Harris, May 13, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.

    I was going to comment about the Mondaini suspension, but I see Brent has stolen my entire point. All I can do is second his comment and Paul's article. Garber needs to do something; the league will be destroyed by these reckless displays. The coaches need to be brought to heel; they countenance this behavior. Never, ever have I heard one say "My guy was in the wrong." They only seem to deplore the other guys' violent tackles.

  8. Caroline Lambert, May 13, 2011 at 1:56 p.m.

    For once I absolutely with Paul. If the league doesn't understand the problem, they're doomed. They lost my support already - I used to be a season ticket holder and subscriber to MLS Direct Kick. No longer. My local college soccer teams are more pleasing to watch than MLS if I want to go to live games, and there's plenty of good European soccer if I want to watch soccer on TV.

  9. Steven Erickson, May 13, 2011 at 4:50 p.m.

    Paul references a column written 35 YEARS AGO, that alone is a very telling point about MLS. The USA still does not have the public's attention on soccer in the big leagues. Why should that be expected when on the average household day a family tunes into a game to see what the "big boys" play as opposed to their kids rec soccer? What is televised but the crude "tackle" of some goon with the horrific resultant injury. What's great about that? Where are the great ball skills they've heard about, not here. Why watch? There is the short history of the MLS. MLB and the NFL are cheering because it's less of a threat to THEIR fan base and believe this, great soccer would be a real threat.

  10. James Pritchard, May 13, 2011 at 5:25 p.m.

    It's not my original idea, but here's a pretty good answer to the problem: If player 1 injures player 2 during a foul (to be determined on the field or later by the league on replay), player 1 is suspended (without pay, of course) until player 2 is able to return to full duty. For all you liberals, make the maximum penalty 12 months if player 2 is unable to return during that time. That will make players think twice about making dangerous tackles!

  11. beautiful game, May 13, 2011 at 7:48 p.m.

    MLS refs and the hunchos have failed miserably in structuring a competent referee corps which is consistent and above all enforces the laws of the game. Professional fouls are rarely carded, from the rear fouls according to the game law requires a minimum of a yellow casrd which is not enforced and the free kick encroachments continue to be abused. If the league is worried about the flow of the game, it is in denial, because there is no flow with the constant turnovers when two contestants charge at each other like runaway trains without purpose.

  12. Ken Jamieson, May 14, 2011 at 9:26 a.m.

    Thank you Mr. Gardner, for taking us back to the NASL. I was a young teenager at the time, following my favoured Whitecaps. It is ironic that MLS should be caught in the same dilema that faced "the other league." MLS has since day one, tried to distance itself from the unsuccessful NASL, saying it has learned from the mistakes of that league. Yet, surprise, surprise, here we see MLS going down the same path.
    In MLS's defence, the professional game worldwide doesn't seemed to have learned anything in the past 150 years since the Cambridge rules were introduced. One need only look at the disgraceful treatment of Eusebio during the World Cup in England in 1966.
    While I believe players must be held accountable for their on-field actions, I also believe that their actions are often the result of the training and tactics of their coaches and the coaches should also be held accountable. Perhaps matching touchline bans for coaches whose players get suspended for violent conduct might wake them up.
    As for Mr. Garber; Phil Woosnam, during the latter portion of his tenure as NASL Commissioner, was often accused of living in denial in face of the problems beseiging his league. The same can be said for Mr. Garber's addressing of the rash of violent conduct under his watch.

  13. Joe Shoulders, May 14, 2011 at 4:42 p.m.

    Great stuff PG! Sadly, many of PG's favorite causes (violent play, British and Northern European higher coaching twaddle, etc.) are still major problems today. I'm sure he can refer back to many writings that he can simply change the years and submit today.

    The good news is that soccer has advanced so much since then in the areas of coverage, public interest and level of American players. However, the problems that keep soccer in the US from having a world class league and winning a World Cup are the areas where the powers that be have learned nothing.

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