Right at the end of Vancouver’s preseason game against Chicago there was a coming-together of players. That’s a term that has been cropping up in ref-talk lately. It denotes a collision but -- possibly -- it shades the meaning slightly. A collision carries the suggestion of hard contact, something, if not violent, then certainly forceful.
But a coming together is probably a better description for lesser collisions where contact may be minimal. The players who came together in the incident I’m talking about were Vancouver forward Blas Perez and Chicago goalkeeper Matt Lampson. In which case, knowing that referees are mighty protective of goalkeepers, you would expect it to result in a free kick for Chicago.
Which it did -- and I think referee Allen Chapman got the call right. Lampson did not move -- forward or backward or sideways -- he simply stayed on his goal line then reached up to punch the ball as it descended. Perez was definitely moving, quite quickly, toward Lampson, He jumped to head the ball, did not do so, then ran into Lampson, knocking him down.
It is my previously stated (in this column) belief that it should be a foul to challenge a goalkeeper within the 6-yard box. Add to that the fact that Lampson was reaching up, exposing the entire front of his body -- a vulnerable positioning that referees are quite right to view as entitling the goalkeeper to protection.
To my surprise Vancouver coach Carl Robinson, in his postgame remarks, said flatly that there was no foul by Perez. Well, OK, this was a disappointed coach talking (Chicago took the game 3-2). But Robinson went further and delivered a short lecture. The topic, according to Robinson, was tackling, and how referees have to be careful that in calling a foul whenever there is contact, they might be paving the way to the complete banning of tackling, and how that would ruin the sport.
I’ve heard this argument before, haven’t I ever. And I have never, not once, heard it make any sense. The argument is not really centered on tackling. Nobody wants to outlaw tackling. About 15 years ago Michel Platini had the temerity to seriously suggest such a ban. He was widely ridiculed and the topic has never, to my knowledge, been raised since. So Robinson must know that tackling will not be banned. No one wants that.
What Robinson is really defending is not tackling but the much wider topic of body contact. He is making the case for a more physical game. Well, of course. Soccer calls for a great deal of physicality. But the hope is that the physical clashings and coming-togethers will be “part of the game” -- i.e. will be incidental. What is not wanted in soccer is deliberate roughness. That much ought to be screamingly obvious to anyone who has read the Rules. Rule 12 -- “Fouls and Misconduct” -- begins with a list of physical fouls: to kick, trip, jump at, charge, strike, push or tackle an opponent are all fouls if careless or reckless or if they involve excessive force.
The rules tell you: those actions occur within the game, but they are allowed only within certain strict limits. The game must not be allowed to degenerate into a free-for-all.
A player who is on the field playing with a deliberately reckless approach, a player who is actively seeking contact with opponents -- such players are undermining what, it seems to me, is an absolutely essential fundamental of the sport: that skill -- soccer skill -- is the heart of the sport.
No one, certainly no one that I’m aware of, suggests that those skills should have free rein in the field. Of course they have to be countered by defenders, vigorously so. But not illegally.
The argument that Robinson and many others make is first of all a dishonest one, because they know full well that there is no one out there looking to ban tackling. Any argument that relies on misrepresenting its opponents is suspect from the start.
But the argument in favor of a physical game is fatally flawed anyway. Because it flies in the face of the rules, which attempt to strike a workable compromise between soccer skills and the use of physical play to counter them.
The rules have drawn a set of boundaries beyond which physical play must not venture. On the whole they work well. But the advocates of physical play are forever finding fault with them. They are always seeking to push back the restrictions on physicality. But they need to answer a vital question. If we’re to accept their version of soccer -- a more physical and, inevitably, a more violent, version -- then they must tell us just how far the roughness can go. And a version of the soccer rules that spells out which fouls are permitted, rather than those which are forbidden, is not going to make for pleasant reading, never mind an attractive game.
Robinson wants to warn us that if contact (not just tackling) is legislated out of soccer, the sport will be ruined. He may be right -- but he has to know that no one is advocating the disappearance of contact. Soccer is far more likely to be ruined, certainly made more ugly, if the call for referees to permit more fouling is heeded.