Hard on the heels (and that phrase may soon acquire literal meaning) of the arrival of Jermaine Jones in MLS, comes the news that the Columbus Crew have signed Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz. Two players who can -- and I’m picking my words carefully here -- be described as hard men.
Not that you would know that from reading the welcoming statements. Up in Boston the Revs’ owner, Jonathan Kraft, called Jones “A good guy, a solid guy.” And Revs’ coach Jay Heaps chimed in with the usual comments about leadership that crop up when coaches have difficulty talking straight about their players.
No mention at all of Jones’s appalling disciplinary record during his time in the Bundesliga. Jones himself -- who in Germany was nicknamed Kampfschwein (Fighting Pig) -- touched on his physical play with "I’m not a guy who likes to lose, so maybe I have to kick someone in the ass -- only in a good way." Leaving it unclear whether he was talking about opponents or teammates. Probably both. But in a good way.
Jurgen Klinsmann is a great admirer of Jones -- no doubt because Jones responds exactly to Klinsmann’s desire to have his players get “nastier ... maybe we don’t want to hurt people, but that’s what you’ve got to do.” In a good way, I suppose.
Now here comes Pogatetz, a 31-year-old journeyman defender, who revels in the nickname Mad Dog. If all goes according to the Crew’s plans, we’re going to get three and a half years of the sort of delights that Mad Dog can bring to the game.
Crew coach Gregg Berhalter tells us: “Emmanuel is a great addition to the roster ... he’s very good in the air and a strong tackler who can possess and pass the ball well. He fits right into what we’re doing. And he’s a person who can affect the culture of our club with his experience, attitude and mentality.”
With that last bit, of course, we’re back to leadership. I have learned, over many years, to beware when coaches use that word. Something is being hidden. Something like this, maybe. Back to 2008, when the Mad Dog was playing for Middlesbrough in the English Premier League.
There was plenty of opportunity then to watch him in action and I recall being repeatedly astonished at the alarming crudeness of his play. In his first two seasons at Middlesbrough he was yellow-carded 20 times -- and that in a league that is notoriously reluctant to hand out cards. So I was not surprised when he overdid things and produced what the English like to call a “horror tackle” on a young ManU player, the Brazilian Rodrigo Possebon, making his debut for the club. Possebon was rushed to hospital, and was very, very fortunate to escape a broken leg. Take a look HERE.
This was not an aberration, not for a player who calls himself Mad Dog. And it had happened before, in 2005, when Pogatetz was with Russian club Spartak Moscow. His tackle broke his opponent’s leg in two places. Pogatetz got a 24-week ban (later reduced to eight weeks -- that shouldn’t surprise either, the Mad Dogs of soccer usually get off lightly. Anyone who doubts that should take a look at what happened in 1983 when Diego Maradona’s ankle was shattered by a tackle from Andoni Goikoetxea).
None of that dubious stuff about Pogatetz was included in the Crew’s lengthy press release, in which he was hailed as a “stalwart.” Plus that bit about him being a “strong tackler.” Berhalter no doubt meant that as a compliment ... but is Berhalter aware of Pogatetz’s record? If so, how can he make a remark like that? If he is not aware ... but, come on, how can he not be aware?
So Jones and Pogatetz bring their nastiness to MLS -- an MLS which, under the refereeing guidelines laid out by PRO boss Peter Walton, shows every sign of being a league where physical play is being treated with increasing leniency.
A league, in other words, where Jones and Pogatetz will have plenty of opportunities to display their so-called leadership qualities. If you wonder what that might mean ... it might mean this sort of thing, which happened in a game I attended in 2012. The final score was USA 1 Brazil 4. An exhibition game -- the game after which Klinsmann pleaded for more nastiness.
Well, he’d had an example of utter nastiness during that game. From his pet player, Jermaine Jones. With the USA being outplayed, with the new young Brazilian Neymar living up to his reputation as a talented star, Jones decided to show some leadership by launching himself into a vicious tackle on Neymar. Given that Neymar was out near the touchline at the halfway line, he presented no threat at all.
Jones’s tackle was sheer nastiness, a desire to “kick someone,” even if it meant injuring one of the sport’s most promising young players ... or, perhaps, precisely for that reason. It was more than nasty. It was disgusting.
So we have MLS clubs recruiting and welcoming roughhouse players. We have MLS referees under instruction from Walton to ignore minor fouls but to be draconian when dealing with diving. And we have NBC giving us, during their telecasts, rapid biff-bam-pow! montages of violent play. What is going on here?