Time is running out on violent goalkeeping

By Paul Gardner

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.

17 comments about "Time is running out on violent goalkeeping ".
  1. Ginger Peeler, October 8, 2015 at 8:15 p.m.

    I sincerely believe the game would benefit if all commentators were required to take the referee's course. Both my children were refs. My son was so respected, as a high school sophomore, he was centering the high school JV girls team. And all the coaches liked him. He also spent the weekends lining for the Hispanic league games...until a spectator started waving a gun around after a game (not aiming at anybody in particular). He quit refereeing after that.

  2. Ginger Peeler, October 8, 2015 at 8:22 p.m.

    My point is, somebody who knows the rules is not going to make silly and idiotic statements. Taylor Twellman is a cute kid, but he should learn the rules of the game before he criticizes the refs. He makes statements about calls he really doesn't understand, so people new to the game are misinformed. Same for Ian Darke. And whatever happened to play by play? Now we get nonstop gossip and frivolity in the booth...I've seen one game where the commentator was so engrossed in the story he was relating, he missed a goal! Pathetic.

  3. uffe gustafsson, October 8, 2015 at 8:24 p.m.

    One small comment, 45 min to read the rule book, yes.
    But to apply the rules on the field takes years of reffing to get things right. What you read in the book is not so simple to apply during a game.
    You don't get to be a FIFA referee by reading 45 min of a book.
    That's why players on the field don't understand the rules all the time, they never referred a game and have intemperate what is accepted and what cross the line.

  4. Adrian Gonzalez, October 8, 2015 at 8:49 p.m.

    I watch lots of BPL and La Liga games and they are as fun to listen to as they are to watch. So too are games in Spanish. Some MLS teams are playing at a better level than a few years ago, but listening to announcers is a detriment to those trying to become interested in the game in the US. Officiating is poor and so is commentating. We still have a way to go. Those comments by the goalkeeper/announcers are poor. That stuff needs to be cleaned up.

  5. R2 Dad, October 8, 2015 at 10:14 p.m.

    Great topic, but I fear this point will fall on deaf ears. I went looking for the clips to watch these collisions, and even though each match highlight might be 4-10 minutes in length the editors cut out the controversy in favor of 30 more seconds of goal celebrations. This trend represents the downside to the Xbox Fifa-ification of the sport. This is the penultimate clip, and the soundtrack behind it speaks volumes about the hill to climb:

  6. ROBERT BOND, October 9, 2015 at 8:54 a.m.

    when will we see calls for mandatory headgear? mine will wear it in goal or retire.....

  7. ROBERT BOND, October 9, 2015 at 9:08 a.m.

    you run into someone in front of you, it's a foul..........colliding while going for the ball is a 50-50.....

  8. Kent James, October 9, 2015 at 1:06 p.m.

    There is no excuse for commentators ignorance of the rules, and Joe Machnic's role is an important one. I've never understood why the networks don't just pay a reasonably high level official to watch the game, and provide insights to the commentators. I'm sure there are many referee educators who'd be willing to provide their services for pretty low cost in order to educate the public.

  9. Kent James, October 9, 2015 at 1:17 p.m.

    As for goalkeeper violence, referees give them much to much leeway, I'd argue primarily because anything called on them results in a PK. Goalkeepers are like any other player going for a ball; if they are jumping, they must jump straight up (but since they have the advantage of being able to use their hands, they should be able to reach the ball more easily than a field player). If they are going forward (instead of up), they have to get there first; they cannot go through a player to get the ball (though clearly some goalkeepers ignore this). Where it becomes trickier to call the foul is when both players are going forward and they collide; this happens with keepers more than anyone else because of their unique position. If one player gets the ball and the other does not, then it is a foul on the latter. But too often, keepers go through the offensive player to get the ball (in the 'brave' goalkeeping Friedel is lauding). On the other hand, Friedel is right; it takes guts to go for the ball hard when someone is running at you in the opposite direction just as hard, especially when the keeper is using his hands (and putting his head very close to the point of contact). So keepers should be given the benefit of the doubt when it is not clear, but they should not be given carte blanche.

  10. Bob Ashpole, October 9, 2015 at 1:56 p.m.

    Well said, Mr. Gardner. There is no exception in Law 12 allowing keepers to use greater force than a field player or to disregard player safety. As you no doubt know keepers, even youth, are generally trained to play in a manner which physically intimidates opponents through making it risky to challenge the keeper. Since challenging a keeper in possession is not permitted inside the penalty area use of these techniques is not contrary to the spirit of the game. The problem arises, however, when the keeper is not in possession of the ball. Careless or dangerous play by keepers not in possession is not allowed by the Laws. Slide tackles are a good example of an area where I frequently see a double standard applied for keepers and field players in judging what is careless and reckless. I attribute it to the referees reluctance to award penalties.

  11. Santiago 1314, October 9, 2015 at 3:21 p.m.

    2 Field players Jumping Up(At) to Head the Ball...Player A gets there First, Player B then Knocks Player A in the Head...FOUL on Player B...What if Player A, is the GK.???... Why should he be Penalized, just because the Rules say he can use his Hands???...If GK gets there First, He is the one that is Being Fouled...GK is 12 inches Taller(because of Arm Reach)...If Brooks goes up for Header and then Yedlin Cracks him in the Head, it's still Yedlin's Fault...Don't Penalize one player just cause he has more "REACH"...

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, October 9, 2015 at 3:35 p.m.

    Or, Another way to look at it is... If a Train leaves Philadelphia at 10m and A airplane takes the Red Eye out of New York at 10pm, Who gets to LAX first to watch the USA KICK A$$ ON MEXICO!!!

  13. Mark Headley, October 10, 2015 at 12:43 a.m.

    Bravo, though perhaps the piece buries the lead: To wit, how dangerous this and other rough play can be to brains, careers . . . . Also, I don't understand why Gardner views commentators as the decisively powerful leading culprits here. Not, as he notes, failures to enforce the roles: by refs; by those responsible for supervising refs -- right on up to the disgraceful FIFA. Finally, why no mention of a"Sweeper Keeper Neuer's" brutally demolishing Higuain. Huge stakes: with proper enforcement of the rules -- with a modicum of concern for player safety -- the world cup winner likely would have been Argentina, not Germany. Neuer should have been red-carded, with Germany reduced to 10 men, having to use a substitution for a back-up goalkeeper faced first with an Argentina PK, no?

  14. Kent James replied, October 14, 2015 at 2:38 p.m.

    You are wrong on the Neuer-Higuain clash. Both players are moving, Neuer gets to the ball first, Neuer's knee and Higuain's head meet. Foul on Higuain, because he was there after Neuer. If Higuain were stationary and Neuer did the same thing, it would be a foul on Neuer (because he would have hit the stationary Higuain), but since they're both moving, they're equally guilty. And if Neuer's knee had hit Higuain prior to his contact with the ball, it would be a foul on Neuer, since he would have gone through Higuain to get the ball. But as it was, he went over Higuain, got the ball, then they collided. One could argue that Higuain's turned his head so he could not see Neuer coming, so maybe Neuer's play was dangerous (because it was from behind), but it's tough to blame that on Neuer, since he's focused on the ball (as he should be). If Neuer had reached it with his head, there's no doubt it would have been a foul on Higuain. But Neuer's fist is just as much a part of his body as his head is, so the ref was right.

  15. Mark Headley, October 26, 2015 at 2:14 a.m.

    Agreed. But why capitulate? Friedel's commentary frquently strikes me as especially bad. For example, when asked if Tim Howard would have stopped one of Mexico's goals, he first said no GK would. Not sure if he raced to say Guzan had "no chance", as commentors are wont to do absent amanifest mistake. Before long BF had retreated to acknowledging it would have taken a "world class" save. Well, yes. As we saw time and again v. Belgium--Howard is the US's world class GK, and we can't afford having JK unprofessionally squandering what world class talent there US can field. The second goal reminded of the German goal v. BF. Oliver Kahn, officiating error, luck were decisive,

  16. Richard Brown, November 9, 2015 at 8:54 p.m.

    Paul very surprised at your comment on keeper coming out with knee raised. Raising the knee gives the keeper height. But if you hit a player with the front of the knee definitely a foul. When the knee goes up it should not be straight out. The knee goes in front of the side of his body. So the opponent does not get hit with the knee. The contact point is the side of the keepers thigh not the knee.

  17. Richard Brown, November 9, 2015 at 8:57 p.m.

    I have heard players who really know the game, but are told by the network to dumb down their commentary so the new fan can follow.

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