Employing former players as TV experts is now well established as the thing to do. Like it or not, that’s what we’re getting. Occasionally it works well -- which is surprising, because TV work is specialist work, and it’s alarmingly clear that none of these guys has any training for the job. The fact that they played at the highest level (and a few somewhat lower) seems to be the only qualification necessary.
That’s not to be scoffed at, because it presumably entails an insider’s knowledge of the sport. Presumably ... though sometimes you wonder. Knowledge of the sport should surely include a thorough mastery of the rules -- yet, as I have shown in previous columns, that is not necessarily so. There have been too many examples of these players-turned-commentators being ignorant -- sometimes spectacularly so -- of the rules.
That seems to me inexcusable, a major lack of professionalism. The rules can be read in about 45 minutes. The “Interpretations” may take another 45 minutes. This is not exactly a major chore, then. Yet it’s one that evidently doesn’t get done too often.
To clarify. The TV pundits are expected to voice their opinions on every aspect of the game, and that is fine, it’s a huge part of what we expect from them. But there is this one aspect where their opinions are not valid. The rules. What the rulebook says is not a matter of opinion (though interpretation may be).
Not bothering to learn the rules of the game, when you’re on TV giving supposedly authoritative judgments, when you’re posing as someone whose word can be trusted ... well, there’s a strong whiff of fraudulence in that.
Yet this is a fault that can be easily corrected. The Fox Sports method is to bring on the admirable Joe Machnik, who really is a rules expert. Machnik does a good job of sorting out thorny problems and genuine difficulties with rule interpretation. But the deeper problem -- that so many of these pundits don’t know the basics - can only be solved by the pundits themselves.
There is another type of rules-related problem that needs attention. Inevitably, it involves goalkeepers.
I think it might be a good idea for FIFA to issue a separate rule book for goalkeepers. In the current book, the 17 rules contain at least 18 “exceptions” for goalkeepers -- cases where a rule is slightly, or hugely, modified to accommodate the obvious fact that goalkeepers are not playing the same game as the other 20 guys on the field. And that is only the visible part of the goalkeeper exceptions.
Because there are cases where goalkeepers are regularly allowed to get away with actions that are specifically prohibited in the rules -- actions that would surely be punished if committed by field players.
I’m referring, in particular, to the habit that goalkeepers have developed of racing out of their goal to punch the ball away. They charge forward, leading with their fists, with a knee raised ... and simply smash into whoever may be in their way, be he a teammate or, far more often, an opponent. And goalkeepers are usually the heaviest player on their teams.
By what perverse thinking that violence has become acceptable I do not understand. Not only acceptable, but worthy of the highest praise, it seems.
That brings us back to the TV guys. On the recent Colorado-Real Salt Lake game, the commentators were Mark Rogondino and Brad Friedel. Both ex-goalkeepers, which seems excessive. Whatever, it was Friedel who applied the goalkeeper touch, in the 95th minute, in what was the last play of the game:
The score is 2-1 to RSL. Colorado with a last chance to tie the game, has a free kick 30 yards out. The ball is lofted into the RSL penalty area and Nick Rimando charges forward to punch the ball -- which he does, and at the same time absolutely clobbers Colorado’s Lucas Pittinari, at head level.
I’ve watched this -- and listened to it -- repeatedly because I find Friedel’s description bordering on the incredible. Did he really say this?
“That is outstanding goalkeeping ... when you want a leader to step up, there’s one ... big strong punch and a big strong body, big collision ... exactly what you want.”
He did, because he has eyes only for the goalkeeper, none for Pittinari who got violently battered, got up very shakily and could be seen doubling up as he walked away.
Rogondino also had his say. As Rimando smashed into Pittinari, he took a spectacular somersault over Pittinari’s back. “He’s upended in the area,” said Rogondino, which is again a goalkeeper comment. Because Rimando’s upending was caused by no one but himself, jumping at full speed into Pittinari.
Rule 12, page 37 makes it crystal clear:
A direct free kick is awarded if a player “jumps at an opponent ... in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.”
Rimando was guilty on all of those counts. Colorado should have had a penalty. Referee Mark Kadlecik called a halt to the game immediately after the incident, so we don’t know what call, if any, he would have made. But the chances are high almost to certainty, that if he had called a foul, it would have been against Pittinari. For what? Who knows, getting in the goalkeeper’s way, I suppose, though that is not -- not yet, anyway -- an official offense.
Back in March I drew attention to a similar incident, when commentator Andy Gruenebaum praised as “great goalkeeping” a play in which Dallas keeper Chris Seitz wiped out Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer. Gruenebaum, another ex-goalkeeper, did add that it “was unlucky for Dom Dwyer to be in the way.”
OK, I’m criticizing Friedel. But he can reply that he is doing nothing wrong, he is simply praising a goalkeeper for playing in a way that referees, and the sport in general, seem to find OK.
That is a pretty good defense, but it is not good enough. I am quite sure that Friedel is not a brutal man. Yet his comments are callous, certainly thoughtless. Does he really believe that a “big collision” is “exactly what you want”?
Come to that, can he really feel comfortable extolling actions that have a real possibility of causing serious injury? He has only to consider the case of another TV commentator, Taylor Twellman, if he needs a reminder of that.
Times are changing. We now know so much more about the dangers and potential dangers of head injury than we did even just 10 years ago. It should be clear to everyone involved in soccer that the traditional leniency shown to keepers who deliberately wipe out opponents cannot last much longer. And it would be nice to find that a highly experienced goalkeeper like Friedel is not stuck in the rut of stubbornly defending what was done in the past, but is in the forefront of those seeking rule changes that will decrease the risk of players suffering serious injuries.