We all remember Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa, don't we. The stalwart double act at the heart of the U.S. defense in the 1994 World Cup. A rather rustic pair. That’s right -- those two. That was over 20 years ago, and they've moved on, of course. They no longer play -- or is it work? -- alongside each other but, as it happens, they’ve both moved on to television work.
Now, I’ve nothing against ex-central-defenders telling us how the game should be played ... well, no, that’s not true. I do have something against defenders of any sort -- especially the rustic sort -- telling us what should be done ... but dammit that’s not true either.
My problem is that, over this past weekend, in separate telecasts, Balboa and Lalas both recommended breaking the rules of the game as the proper way to play defense. Which is bad. Except that Balboa and Lalas were being brutally honest about the way defenders play these days ... and I’m not about to criticize them for telling the truth. I’ll try to arrive at a firm position in this quicksand.
We’ll start with Marcelo Balboa, who is the official TV analyst for the Colorado Rapids. On the whole I think he does a good job, he’s not overly pro-Rapids, he gets his points over clearly. Yes, he does a pretty solid job. Except when he’s praising fouls. At the 66th minute of Saturday’s Colorado-New England game, the Revs’ Juan Agudelo intercepted a sloppy Colorado pass in midfield and started to accelerate (and he’s pretty quick) toward the Colorado goal. Colorado’s Michael Harrington, whom Agudelo had beaten to the ball, wasn’t having any of that, and blatantly pulled Agudelo down. Harrington, correctly, got a yellow card from referee Fotis Bazakos.
Here’s Balboa: “You know what, Harrington didn’t have a choice. That’s just a professional foul. Harrington has to take him down.”
Three terse sentences. All three of them unacceptable. Harrington did have a choice. He could have decided to stick to the rules of the sport and not deliberately foul. And why is this “just” a professional foul, implying that it’s no big deal, nothing to get upset about. Quite definitely Harrington did not have to take Agudelo down.
But my biggest objection to Balboa’s analysis is not with those three sentences -- their reasoning is pretty lame and can be easily demolished. The major problem is Balboa’s attitude, the nonchalant way that he accepts a deliberate foul and condones the breaking of the sport’s rules as a legitimate way of playing the sport.
Is it really OK to flout the rules like that? Racing to back up Balboa’s contention, here comes Alexi Lalas. One day later, on Sunday, Lalas was the analyst for the Fox telecast of the Kansas City-Philadelphia game. Philadelphia’s Fernando Aristeguieta has just headed his team into a 2-1 lead. Over to Lalas: “That isn’t because he wasn’t marked. But if you’re on a guy like him, you’ve gotta be close, holding on to him, holding on to his jersey, do whatever you possibly can ...” A couple of minutes later a replay shows that KC’s Matt Besler was all over Aristeguieta and was indeed clearly holding him. The holding by Besler that we’re looking at is quite enough to warrant calling a penalty kick. But it’s not enough for Lalas, who protested “He’s still gotta do better.”
Meaning, he’s gotta do worse. Once again, as with Balboa, we see a total disregard of, a lack of respect for, the rules. Does the Balboa/Lalas combo really believe that soccer -- or any sport, for that matter -- can even exist if the players feel entitled to pick and choose which rules they will obey and which they will ignore? Can it be that B/L fail to understand the notion of Fair Play, something much touted by FIFA?
No, it can’t be. B/L know perfectly well that they’re advocating cheating. Their defense would undoubtedly be that everyone does it, that it’s now part of the game, and that referees are more likely than not to turn a blind eye to the fouls they’re condoning.
That is certainly not a moral argument -- it does nothing to answer the charge of systematic cheating. But it is definitely a practical argument. Balboa’s position at least accepts that the rules may be enforced -- as they were in Saturday’s game -- but judges the yellow card to be a nugatory punishment, one that is worth risking. Lalas’s view is more cynical, evidently confident that holding and shirt-grabbing and “doing whatever you possibly can” are unlikely to be called, so why not do them?
Neither Balboa nor Lalas actually used the words “a good foul,” but they are used -- frequently -- to describe what Balboa calls a “professional” foul (better described as a tactical foul). A “good foul” ought to be an oxymoron. But the corruption of the sport quickly induces a corruption of its language, and who today challenges the idea of a good foul? A challenge likely to be greeted with subdued snickering or open ridicule.
The problem I started with turns out to be a number of problems. The rules themselves are not forceful enough in dealing with the fouls that Balboa and Lalas are treating so lightly. But even when the rules clearly spell out the foul and the punishment (which is what they do for tactical fouls) referees do not apply the rules consistently. Unfortunately, it is not only players who choose which rules they will heed.
I think I end up here with both feet firmly planted in mid-air. I do not wish to criticize Balboa or Lalas for speaking plainly about the endemic fouling that plagues the game. But I strongly object to their virtual championing of certain fouls and their refusal to admit that they’re telling us that cheating is OK. I’m trying not to overlook that there is a moral angle to this quandary. Does this concept of the “good foul” crop up in any of the U.S. Youth Soccer’s instructional material, I wonder?
But from the strictly practical angle, it would be helpful to know what referees feel about this. What is the opinion of the professional referee’s group in this country, PRO, to TV analysts like Balboa and Lalas who openly approve of not abiding by the rules that referees are trying to enforce?