When this sort of thing happens -- and it keeps happening in soccer -- you're left to ponder whether there is ever anything really new for the sport to explore.
I’m talking about the decision made by England coach Roy Hodgson that his team must, as The Guardian put it, “drop their ‘nice’ side and implement a tougher streak.”
This was just a week after coach, Neil Warnock, had lamented of his Crystal Palace “I think we're too nice at the moment. We are too honest.”
There was also the celebrated outburst from Jurgen Klinsmann, back in 2012, when he said of his USA team “We need to get an edge, more nastier ... Maybe we're still a little bit too naive.”
And believe me, this appeal for rough play has been going on for as long as I remember -- since the sport started, which is a bit longer than I can remember. The founding fathers of the game made it very clear that they didn’t want players kicking each other. So the sport split into two branches -- one was rugby, where manhandling and kicking (known as hacking) were permitted, the other branch was soccer, where the rules specifically forbade hacking and most other forms of violent contact.
Well, hold on. In the examples above, were Hodgson, Warnock, and Klinsmann asking for more rough play? You might think not, but only because they don’t come out and say so. But hidden in their appeals for less honesty, less naivete and more nastiness, is the theme of a more physical game. Klinsmann, actually, was the most honest -- he did face up to what he was demanding: “Maybe we don't want to hurt people. But that's what we've got to do. So we've got to step on their toes more ...”
More fouls, then. For some coaches, probably most, the foul count is the most reliable yardstick for a team’s commitment. When Felipe Scolari was coaching Palmeiras back in 1999, he rued his team’s low foul count after a loss: “A team which only commits five fouls in the second half deserves to lose.”
Of course it’s significant that all the above coaches were suffering. Hodgson’s England has a pathetic 2014 World Cup performance to live down, Warnock’s Crystal Palace is floundering near the bottom of the EPL, Klinsmann’s USA had been wiped out 4-1 by Brazil, Scolari’s Palmeiras had just lost to Corinthians.
The chances are high -- to almost certainty -- that all four teams were poor. But the reaction of all four coaches was the same -- not that we “must play better,” but that we “must toughen up.”
Another clear euphemism. What these coaches are encouraging their teams to do is to stop respecting the rules of the game. In the pursuit of victory, especially for a team going through a bad spell, the rules, apparently cease to matter.
You would expect, surely, that coaches would accept that playing according to the rules is the rock-bottom essential for participating in any sport. You’d be wrong -- in soccer, you are allowed to ignore certain rules if you don’t like them.
That coaches can openly discuss an intent to ignore the rules -- to play, in effect, on a basis of cheating -- is already pretty remarkable. But no one pays much attention. The people most closely involved are the referees, but they never respond, never comment, on this cheating call-to-arms that is sounded so frequently.
The rule that gets ignored most frequently is the one that reads “commits a foul for the tactical purpose of interfering with or breaking up a promising attack.” The tactical foul. A sure-fire way of destroying the flow of a game, and of riling the opposition.
The rule book is quite clear: Such fouls must be punished with a yellow card. Far too frequently they are not. In fact, they are often praised. They are “good fouls” -- TV commentators are especially fond of making that observation, feeling no doubt that it shows that they understand the realpolitik of the sport.
Hodgson’s new-look England, says The Guardian , will now “if necessary, concede fouls in areas that will not lead to dangerous free-kicks ...” Would they be thinking that way if they knew , with cast-iron certainty, that each of those fouls, those “good” fouls, would be greeted with a yellow card?
Agreed that tactical fouls are usually not violent. They don’t need to be. The players committing them are not responding to an immediate crisis, merely trying to get the referee to stop the game while their team gains time to reassemble.
But tactical fouls introduce an element of lawlessness -- usually unpunished -- that is conducive to more fouls, all of which ups the likelihood of a reckless tackle or two.
What we are asked to accept is that the rules are for cissies. Ignoring them, when it suits you, is part of the man’s game. Not just the fouls themselves, but the whole concept of “playing ugly” is lauded.
The hell with trying to get better, trying to play better soccer. Better soccer is slurred as pretty soccer -- a “romantic illusion” as Chile coach Juvenal Olmos called it in 2005. Eric Wynalda has this to say: “Well, this is professional soccer and I say forget the cute stuff and just win games.” Or you can tune in to Michael Bradley: “Teams that only play pretty, attacking football usually don't end up winning championships ... You need to have the guts and strength to fight out a win that maybe you don't deserve.” Or, to complete the ridiculing of pretty soccer, we have Peter Reid’s reflections after Chelsea had just run rings around his Sunderland team -- “the game may have been entertaining in a popcorn sort of way.”
The assertion is always made, or is strongly implicit, that “pretty” soccer is losing soccer. That to win you have to play ugly, to ignore the rules. A convenient assertion, with no proof behind it. There are plenty of examples of teams that play pretty (i.e. skillful) soccer and win championships. Barcelona, and Spain, are powerful recent examples.
The champions of ugly soccer like to give the impression that they have been forced to play the brutal game, to be less honest, or nastier. But when they blithely ignore the obviously successful “pretty” teams, they are letting us know that they actually prefer to play their soccer the ugly way.
The most blood-curdling call to action for those who prefer the brutal game, who don’t care about undermining the integrity of the sport by making a mockery of its rules, came in a Steve Nicol interview from 2002 -- “... we have to get guys who will kick and spit and punch to get results.”
But Nicol was being far too honest. It’s not easy to hide that assembly of offenses under the “good foul” tag.