By Paul Gardner
That soccer's television commentators should get things wrong from time to time is not to be wondered at -- they have to work at high speed, giving instant opinions on incidents they may not have been able to see too clearly.
Though they should have learned by now that it usually means a delay of only a few seconds to wait and see if the almost-instant replay makes things any clearer. Generally, not always, it does.
And generally, though not always, the commentator will, if necessary, revise his opinion. All of which is understandable, decidedly human, behavior. Sure, it can be criticized -- heavily so, if the error is gross. Those who criticize, myself among them, do so with an inner caution, with the awkward knowledge that they themselves are not immune to such errors.
But the errors have their own interest. Because they are likely to offer unguarded insights into the prejudices of the commentators. Prejudices that, in turn, reflect more widespread attitudes.
The errors I’m talking of come in two forms -- either failing to see what is there to be seen, or seeing something that is not there at all. The first type of error can often be totally excused because the pictures themselves are not clear. It is the second type of error -- those that arise because the commentator has invented details -- that interest me here.
The invention may be comparatively innocent -- with the commentator merely striving to make himself look insightful. This happens pretty frequently. Two examples -- one from MLS, one from the EPL: describing a goal scored from distance with a shot that floated over the goalkeeper and dipped just under the bar, the commentator tells us how the scorer “looked up, saw the goalkeeper off his line,” when a careful study of the replays shows that he did not look up; on a badly mistimed volley, the commentator assures us that the player’s miscue occurred because “he looked up at the last moment” -- again, the replays show that to be simply not true.
This is all relatively harmless. In both instances, the commentators’ intentions are benign -- in one case quite possibly giving a player credit he didn’t deserve, in the other trying to excuse a player for a clumsy error. While, of course, allowing the commentators to sound knowledgeable.
So much for innocent invention. The other side of the coin is much less acceptable -- when commentators invent foul play. This is less common and it is interesting to note under what circumstances it most frequently happens.
Diving is the target. I remarked recently on how Kasey Keller made an astonishing mistake in accusing Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales of diving when he was clearly, and badly, fouled by Seattle’s Brad Evans. Keller later, to his credit, apologized for his error. But that is rare -- it didn’t happen in yet another of these incidents, during Saturday’s EPL game between Liverpool and Sunderland.
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was shown a yellow for diving as he went down following a challenge from John O’Shea. Commentator Mark Bright had his say as he watched a replay that hardly backed up his confidence: “O’Shea puts his foot down, pulls it back ... there’s no contact.” What was he looking at? O’Shea did stick out his leg, planted it, but never pulled it back. Having flagrantly invented something that never happened, Bright was then quite happy to condemn Suarez as having “attempted to fool the referee.”
Meanwhile, on the BBC’s Web site, which gives a live text commentary, presenter Phil Dawkes was having his say: “... a theatrical tumble in the box under no contact from a challenge from John O'Shea. It earns the Liverpool striker a booking. And a deserved one at that.”
But all was not well. Some 30 minutes later, Dawkes felt obliged to return to the matter: “Replays of the Luis Suarez penalty incident are suggesting there may have been contact on the striker.” A later game report stated flatly that there was contact. The arrogantly confident assertions of “no contact” by both Bright and Dawkes were looking shoddy.
But Phil Dawkes went further, admitted his bias -- and defiantly defended his error: “I stand by what I said, though, I still think he [Suarez] went down very easily. I know it's old-fashioned but I prefer soccer when players prioritize staying on their feet, trying to score at all costs as opposed to dropping at the slightest brush.”
Which nicely exposes the prejudice in favor of crude defenders and against skillful attackers. I’ll put it more provocatively: a prejudice in favor of the macho urge to kick players who try to use soccer’s ball skills. An insidious prejudice that, it seems to me, cuts at the very roots of the sport. Certainly not one that should be propagated by TV commentators -- if only because it leads them into serious errors of judgment.
Okay Paul, I have to ask this, since penalties for diving are a bee in your bonnet. How would you assess this situation? An offensive player is in the box, sees a defender about to challenge for the ball, and steps in the defender's way, blocking the defender's chosen path to the ball. In other words, the offensive player shields the ball. The defender realizes the offensive player has done this, and immediately alters his course, but there is contact. Not much contact; certainly not enough contact to knock the offensive player down, but a slight bump. The offensive player lurches forward, exaggerating the contact, maybe even crying out maybe even clutching the ball as he falls to the ground (in player slang, he was "knocked down with a feather"). Should the referee call a foul? Is there anything wrong with the offensive player trying to get a foul called? I would suggest that the spirit of the game would encourage play to continue; the offensive player knew there would be contact (and expected it), the defensive player tried to avoid it, and the contact was not enough to alter the play, so it was incidental. If I were the referee in such an instance and an offensive player exaggerated the contact, while I would not issue a card (since there was contact), I would admonish the player not to exaggerate (and I would not call a foul). If the defender does hit the player with enough force to affect the play, then I would call the foul (so I'm not expecting offensive players to stay on their feet regardless). But I guess my point is that while I think defenders have an obligation to try to play without committing fouls, offensive players have an obligation not to exaggerate them. While certainly some commentators see soccer as "a man's game" and live by the mantra "no blood, no foul" (which is on one extreme in this debate), I was wondering if you would ever consider that offensive players who either exaggerate fouls or make them up are also playing in an unsporting manner and should be punished. They're engaged in gamesmanship (in the first case) and cheating (in the second).
Exactly, Kent! Suarez (in my opinion) exaggerated the minimal contact with the specific purpose of "winning the penalty", and was rightly booked for simulation. A more difficult issue is that typified by the Welbeck "penalty" in the Man United match. When a player "dives" to avoid contact from a rash challenge (in this case by the keeper), when the result from that challenge might be serious injury, is the "diving" player to be penalized with a booking if there was indeed no actual contact (as was suggested by the Wigan manager)? Must he "take his punishment" to avoid a card? The issue of actual contact shouldn't be the deciding factor. Every contact is not foul play, and the absence of contact certainly does not mean the absence of foul or dangerous play. Why Mr Gardner cannot admit that simulation is cheating and deplorable is a great mystery to me. Why is his bias always so evident in the terms he chooses ("skillful" attackers versus "crude" defenders)?
Contact can be incidental and no foul awarded. I would prefer to see more of that, especially in the box, rather than the card for questionable theatrics or a pk. There are misconceptions within a large contingent in the footballing universe that any contact in the box is a pk, any ball that hits the arm is handling, any ball that hits the sideline is out, any ball that hits the goal line is a goal.
Paul, the "roots of the sport" are in the old English public schools, a culture that thought it was better to lose like a gentleman than win through bad sportsmanship. The founders of the game would have been repulsed by modern attackers who go down at the slightest hint of contact and likely would have banned such players from the game as the worst form of cheater. Just sayin'.
Charles, the Welbeck PK is a good case study. It was a PK, but also a dive. Bear with me. What I would like to see is if a player tries to avoid a rash challenge, that it should look like he avoided a rash challenge, not the usual "legs stop moving, arched back, arms spread out" dive, as Welbeck did. To me it looks like Welbeck avoided contact (and the keeper did pull back at the last instant) but, in being forced to avoid a wild challenge, lost control and decided to simulate. As a referee I've given those kinds of fouls, in accordance with the Interpretations and Guidelines of Law 12 ("Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play." Notice no mention of contact. You'd better be ready for the "he didn't touch him!" outrage of the wild defender's teammates/coach!) So I think the PK was correctly called, even though Welbeck was guilty of simulation. But here is the question: Would the PK have been called if Welbeck had hurdled the keeper, kept his feet, but lost the ball over the line? Very often the answer is No, and that is why we have simulation. Eradicating simulation is going to have to involve not only punishing simulators, but also calling real fouls in the box, even if contact is minimal, even if there is no blood.
Basically announcers (and fans) tend to assume that any time a player goes down without *obvious* contact that it must be a dive. This all goes back to the bias that diving is an exponentially worse form of cheating than the myriad of other kinds of cheating that goes on in a game (shirt grabbing, rugby tackling, hacking, etc).
Amen, Ramon. And Brian, I agree there are "honest" fouls as well as "cynical" and rarely "criminal" ones. I view simulative diving to gain a scoring opportunity in much the same light as the "professional" defensive foul to deny one, and in a perfect world the penalty (red card dismissal) would be the same. I understand, however, the difficulty in calling a simulated foul rather than an actual one. Maybe that's why simulation is only a yellow. But I (in contrast to Mr Gardner) believe that far too few are awarded (all over the pitch -- not just in the box), not too many. I'm thinking hands to the face, for example, when the touch (if any) was somewhere else.