By Paul Gardner
The ghost of the Cosmos -- the celebrity team that also happened to play pretty damn good soccer -- still hovers intriguingly over the New York soccer scene.
On the one hand, we have a bunch of Brits posing as New Yorkers as they try to revive the Cosmos by organizing an exhibition game in England (of course it would be in England).
And on the other hand, we have the Red Bulls reminding us of a less acceptable face of the Cosmos image -- that of arrogance, of a belief that it was entitled to tell the league (the NASL) how to run things and, in particular, how its referees should behave.
One steamy summer afternoon in the old Giants Stadium -- I think it was 1980 -- the press was summoned to the Multimedia Room before a game. Up front there was a large screen, and we were treated to a rerun of all the controversial referee calls from the previous game. Standing there, with his pointer, playing the expert, was none other than the Cosmos head honcho Steve Ross.
A man who knew next to nothing about soccer, but who was here explaining to us why this call was bad, why that one was terrible, and why the referee should have been shot for another one. A ridiculous farrago. All of the refereeing crimes had, of course, gone against the Cosmos.
I was reminded of this episode of 30 years ago by this week’s “Statement” released by the Red Bulls. A complaint about the refereeing of the weekend’s 3-3 tie between the Red Bulls and Portland.
The Statement (I guess I have to give it a capital “S,” we really are, apparently, meant to treat this as something extra-special serious, a Papal Bull from the Red Bulls) comes from Erik Soler, the Red Bulls’ General Manager and Sporting Director.
It begins “We have carefully reviewed the film of our match against Portland last night ...” -- and that is enough for me. Oh, come off it, Erik!
That word “carefully,” for a start. A word that we are obviously meant to read as “objectively,” when in fact it means precisely the opposite. It means that “we” have been through the film with a fine-tooth comb looking for examples of calls against the Red Bulls -- calls that “we” don’t agree with.
I think it’s a fair observation that, in any soccer game, if you look hard enough for such calls, you’ll be able to find them, or at least con yourself into believing you’ve found them.
Soler is greatly incensed at Thierry Henry’s red card, which he says was “inexplicable” because there was “no violent conduct on his part whatsoever.” Rather unfortunately for Soler, we have an AP story in which the Portland player Adam Moffat is quoted as saying of Henry: “He was pretty wound up. He cuffed me pretty hard in the back of the head.”
Soler is also complaining about the foul count -- 25 fouls called on New York, only 5 on Portland (this is an objective stat, not something conjured up by Soler’s “careful” review of the film). The figures are unusual, that’s true. Soler goes further and calls them virtually unheard of -- “there is no way that one team can draw 20 more fouls than the other team, especially in a match where one team drew just five fouls. I have never seen this occur in my 30 years in the game.”
I have been around the game rather longer than Soler’s 30 years, and I’d be hard put to say whether I’ve seen this situation or not. We never used to keep stats anyway, so who knows from the early days? I agree with Soler that the foul count is highly unusual -- but it is certainly not impossible.
I must also record that I do not subscribe to Soler’s conceit that nothing can happen in soccer unless he has already come across it during his 30 years in the game.
The essence of Soler’s gripe about the foul ratio can only be that the referee was biased in his calls against the Red Bulls. So I did my own viewing of the game. Not all of it. Thanks to my own incompetence at taping, and the vagaries of the process anyway, I was able to “carefully review” only from the 20th through to the 95th minute -- that is, 75 minutes of the game, a sizable slice.
In that period I counted 3 fouls called against Portland, and 17 against the Bulls. According to Soler, that cannot be. Yet I could not really fault the referee on any of these calls. Nor could I accuse him of not making calls against Portland.
So far, I have been talking of an anonymous “referee.” The guy in question is Ricardo Salazar, an experienced ref whom I regard as one of the better MLS officials.
Soler disagrees and pans him as follows: “I can safely say that the level of refereeing was absolutely below the standards of what is required for a MLS match and completely unacceptable ... if we want to continue increasing the level of play, we cannot let these types of refereeing performances occur.”
Harsh words, and ones to which Soler really ought to have given more consideration before issuing his heavy-handed Statement. That Statement was issued far too quickly. A GM of Soler’s experience should know better than to sound off so quickly after a disappointing result.
But my biggest problem with Soler’s Statement is not the deception involved in that “carefully reviewed” trick, nor is it his, in my opinion, totally unjustified criticism of Salazar. What I find most objectionable is the attitude revealed in the final sentence of the Statement: “We look forward to speaking with the League to appeal Thierry’s automatic red card suspension and expect that it will be rescinded so that he is available for our match Thursday in Seattle.”
Now, that is the Cosmos reborn, for sure, the Cosmos at their most unacceptable and their most arrogant. That attitude was revealed at its crudest (once again we’re down in the bowels of Giants Stadium, after a Cosmos loss) and there is Jay Emmett, one of the Cosmos bigwigs, storming up and down the corridor, repeatedly yelling at the top of his voice “I want the Commissioner in my office at 9 o’clock on Monday!” The Cosmos, as the richest team in NASL, as the glamour team, could never quite believe that they couldn’t get their way whenever they wanted to.
I detect that sort of bullying arrogance in Soler’s statement, in his attempt to condition MLS with that “we expect that it [the Henry red card] will be rescinded and that he is available for our match Thursday in Seattle.”
I trust that MLS will disappoint Soler’s expectation.