The picture below is from Saturday’s Dallas-Kansas City game. It shows Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz in the process of punching the ball away.
Not a very successful punch, the ball was punched downward and hit the ground not that far from Seitz. But it was belted upfield by Dallas, and play continued. Kansas forward Dominic Dwyer, who was flattened by Seitz on the play, was “slow to get up” to use the standard phrase.
The picture also shows Seitz in the process of committing a violent foul against Dwyer. Seitz’s punch was mistimed because he had to stretch himself forward, over Dwyer, to reach the ball. And to do that, he had to jump and make solid contact with Dwyer.
Referee Jair Marrufo saw nothing wrong with any of this, and allowed play to continue. That’s not the way I saw things. I think Marrufo got this horrendously wrong. What he should have done was to award Kansas City a penalty kick, and red card Seitz for “serious foul play” that endangered the safety of an opponent.
The foul was blatant. Seitz came charging forward -- yes, eyes on the ball -- as the ball dropped. But Dwyer was already in position to receive it, either to head it or chest it down. He too is looking upward at the dropping ball. But the fact that Dwyer was -- legally -- blocking Seitz’s run didn’t bother Seitz at all. He just kept going -- full speed ahead! out of my way! -- and jumped, with both his knees raised, high into the back of Dwyer.
A goalkeeper foul. And therefore not a foul? Had a field player, trying to head the ball, run at an opponent, leaped and planted both his knees into the guy’s back, can there be any doubt that the foul would have been called immediately and the red card waved?
Why, then, is a goalkeeper allowed to completely get away with a serious -- and dangerous -- foul that would be receive maximum punishment if committed by any other player?
I don’t have the answer to that, but someone ought to know why. FIFA? IFAB, perhaps? Or the referees themselves. To my mind, Marrufo erred badly, and dangerously, here. But he is in good company. Seitz’s wild play was almost a carbon copy of the one that German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer pulled off when he wiped out Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain in last year’s World Cup final. On that occasion, Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli went one worse than Marrufo. He called a foul -- against Higuain. Blaming the victim, indeed.
One thing: In these plays the goalkeeper’s actions are so out of control that he runs the risk of injuring himself, or of smashing into one of his own defenders. Under the current rules, as far as I can make out, clobbering a teammate is OK -- the wording of the rules always insists that it be an opponent who is the victim of serious foul play.
In the light of the sport’s ongoing concern over concussion injuries, this type of play by the goalkeeper should be specifically outlawed. Of course it should. But just a minute there -- isn’t it already banned under the current rules? It surely is, it obviously qualifies as “serious foul play” -- so why do referees refuse to punish the keepers?
We get some help here ... because, as it happened, the color commentator on the telecast of the Dallas-Kansas City game was Andy Gruenebaum, who recently retired from MLS after a 91-game career with Columbus and Kansas City. As a goalkeeper. These are Gruenebaum’s comments as he watches the replays:
"This is Seitz coming for a ball that's low -- but he has made up his mind from square one, he's coming for this ball. He gets to the ball, and Dom Dwyer is just a factor in his way. That's what you're taught to do, protect yourself, you don't worry about them ... You are concentrating on that ball. I think it's great goalkeeping, but also unlucky for Dom Dwyer to be in the way of that."
Frankly, this is wretched stuff. Dom Dwyer is merely in Seitz’s way? What if it had been the other way round, Dwyer charging in on an already positioned Seitz, would it have been OK for Dwyer to smash into him? Just kidding -- Seitz would have gone down and all hell would have been let loose as his teammates raced up to let Dwyer know what they thought of him. And Dwyer would have been ejected prontissimo .
So, having decided that what Seitz did was OK, Gruenebaum tells us “that’s what you’re taught to do, protect yourself.” This is confusion confused. Gruenebaum is presumably referring to the way Seitz raised his knees when jumping into Dwyer.
Yes, it’s true -- we’ve been told over and over that a goalkeeper reaching up to snare or punch a high ball is vulnerable -- what might be called full-frontal vulnerability -- and in danger of being badly injured if an opponent charges him. All of which is very true. Under those circumstances, the goalkeeper must be allowed to protect himself by raising a knee.
But a distinction must be made. Using the raised knee as a shield that an opponent might run into if he charges the keeper is acceptable -- essential, I’d say. But that is quite, quite different from what we have here. Dwyer was not charging Seitz. Seitz was charging Dwyer. And Seitz was not using his raised legs as a protective barrier -- he was turning them into a battering ram. A highly dangerous assault weapon. That should not be permitted.
But, Gruenebaum tells us, that is what goalkeepers “are taught.” Are they? I’d hate to think so. Surely he can’t mean the battering-ram approach, can he? The problem is that even if that is not part of a keeper’s education, he’ll see top keepers, including Neuer, doing it, getting away with it, so he is entitled to assume it’s accepted practice. And “protecting yourself” sounds so much more sportsmanlike than “wiping out an opponent.”
Gruenebaum concluded his short pronouncement on the joys of goalkeeping, by telling us that what Seitz did was “great goalkeeping.” But Gruenebaum, somewhere deep down in his goalkeeper conscience, evidently suspects there’s something not quite right with that verdict. He adds, lamely, that it was “unlucky for Dom Dwyer” to be in Seitz’s path.
Unlucky hardly covers it. Only if you’ve already accepted that a goalkeeper must be allowed unrestricted movement, that everyone must get out of his way when he races to get the ball, can you absolve Seitz. And Neuer.
As there is no such rule in soccer, then we can return to the question: Why are goalkeepers allowed to get away with this flagrant violence? First, there is the traditional leniency that referees show to goalkeepers under all circumstances. Second there is another tradition, that referees dislike calling penalty kicks; most of the goalkeeper fouls of the type under discussion occur inside the penalty area. Third is the still flourishing, though inexplicable, bias that referees display of giving the benefit of doubt to defenders -- so when goalkeepers and forwards clash, the keeper is more likely to get the call. This bias was cruelly exposed by Rizzoli’s surreal decision in the World Cup final to rule that Higuain had fouled Neuer - a decision that Rizzoli later admitted was wrong. There was no foul by anyone, he said.
When highly experienced referees make brazenly bad calls -- calls that virtually encourage highly dangerous fouls -- when they feel justified by “accepted practice” in ignoring the rules of the game, then we’ve reached the alarmingly lamentable stage when it’s necessary for “the authorities” (no, I’m not sure who might have that responsibility) to explain to referees just what the rules say.