Demands for a more physical game should fall upon deaf ears

By Paul Gardner

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.

16 comments about "Demands for a more physical game should fall upon deaf ears".
  1. steve foster, February 24, 2016 at 11:42 a.m.

    Totally agree Paulie. Keep up good work

  2. Thomas Sullivan, February 24, 2016 at 11:46 a.m.

    ditto - Thank God for PG being the voice of reason. You are swimming against the tide but please keep doing it. Otherwise adios to the beautiful game.

  3. Jim Anderson, February 24, 2016 at 12:04 p.m.

    You are on the right course. The game is becoming a wrestling match. The reckless contact, grabbing and pulling of jerseys, and the holding of opponents on corners is running the beauty of this game. A little more attention to the rules of the game by the refs will cause the violations to cease!

  4. Joe Linzner, February 24, 2016 at 12:07 p.m.

    I agree,I have never been an adherent of the pysical game. Rough tackling and even aggressive shielding of the ball all detract fro the skill and beauty of a game. have some issues with refereeing though. It is unequal enforcement of the rules that lead to and even encourage a game to devolve into a rough affair. Watching Bayern against Juve yesterday was a joke and the referee, (ATkinson) allowed rough play from one side and absolute mere touch and contact by the otherresulted in a free kick. One wonders then why tempers flare and the game gets rougher and rougher. Much of the blame for games devoving into brawls fall on the referee's calling the game. Personally I like to see the ball rolling and not the players....

  5. John Soares, February 24, 2016 at 12:16 p.m.

    Agree... Referees need be more "aggressive" with their calls not less. BUT they also need the support of the "powers" to do so consistently.

  6. Barry Ulrich, February 24, 2016 at 2:29 p.m.

    Agree, Joe. I winced numerous times at Atkinson's lack of intervention I commented to myself throughout the match that he had to start blowing his whistle a lot more to maintain a semblance of control. And referee "lectures" during the game have got to stop. We need Collina to teach referees his "stare" technique for handling players.

  7. R2 Dad replied, February 24, 2016 at 8:47 p.m.

    I wonder if Collina's alopecia extends to hypo/hyperthyroidism and/or Graves disease, which could explain his buggy eyes. Very effective, those eyeballs when they're popping out of his head.

  8. Kent James, February 24, 2016 at 5:23 p.m.

    This column generally gets it right; soccer is inherently a physical game, and contact will be part of it. But contact is the by-product, not the goal. Two players going for the ball will eventually meet as they get closer to it, because they are seeking to occupy the same space. And if they are side by side, the contact will not be violent, as long as they are going to the ball. HOWEVER, if one seeks the contact by going into the player (instead of directly to the ball), that physical play is a foul, and should not be allowed.

  9. Kent James, February 24, 2016 at 5:33 p.m.

    Where it gets trickier is for collisions in the air; if you go straight up, you should never commit a foul. If you are running and jumping (as is often the case, and Lopez was doing in the case Paul cited), you now must avoid contact to avoid committing a foul (going over a player instead of through them). Lopez obviously made contact and was rightly called for a foul. If you go over someone first, and then they jump straight up into you, there should be no foul, since you were there first (so they initiated the contact). But if they're going straight up, they should get the benefit of the doubt; unless you are clearly there first, and there is contact, you are likely committing a foul.

  10. Kent James, February 24, 2016 at 5:38 p.m.

    Finally, keepers can often reach over people (since they can use their hands) and get balls they could not were they limited to a head, and since calling a foul on a keeper usually results in a PK, refs give them a bit of leeway. HOWEVER, as PG often asserts, they often take advantage of this leeway and assume they have carte blanche to go for any ball. If a keeper is going through an offensive player to get to the ball (even if they eventually get it), they should be called for the foul.

  11. James Froehlich, February 24, 2016 at 6:05 p.m.

    John Soares--totally agree. I think that one of the problems with MLS is the hidden influence of American football. (I have absolutely no real evidence but I'll continue anyway.). Two big influences are the owners and the major media contracts. Many, not all, owners have ties to American football and their experience tells them that violence and physicality sells! Especially when they are trying to convert new fans. Exactly the same arguments apply to the major media. This rationale supports what I see as referee tolerance of overly physical play and of the nearly complete ignoring of skillfull technical play outside the box by our beloved announcers. It seems to me at least, that there is a real conscious intent to copy the John Madden style of announcing! BTW, I loved Madden in the context of American football where there is so much downtime to fill but for me that style has absolutely no place in soccer.

  12. R2 Dad, February 24, 2016 at 9:01 p.m.

    "Demands" is a bit click-baity since I haven't heard of league personnel who are officially requesting more lenient treatment. And let's give the fans a little credit; Steph Curry is the hugely popular MVP specifically because he is not a big ACC doofus slamming and jamming his way to NHL, sorry NBA stardom. He is the Messi of the NBA and fans love his handles, his shooting touch, the fact that he's not a huge physical freak (sorry Boban). Dub fans can appreciate the ball movement, the movement off the ball, the art that Kerr has brought to the Warriors. Americans can appreciate that in MLS if owners have the huevos to hire a bunch of Kerrs through their organization and develop an MLS version of the Warriors.

  13. beautiful game, February 25, 2016 at 10:33 a.m.

    Referees need to be proactive and consistent. All professional fouls need to be carded.

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, February 27, 2016 at 1:48 p.m.

    I w, please define a professional foul...

  15. Allan Lindh replied, March 2, 2016 at 5:34 p.m.

    A professional foul is an intentional foul design to disrupt the flow of play. Should always receive a card IMHO.

  16. Scot Sutherland, February 28, 2016 at 6:49 p.m.

    Great topic. Having coached players ages 12-20 for many years, I always taught my players to keep their feet if at all possible. I wanted them to separate the opponent from the ball without leaving their feet and with enough balance to make a play after winning it. Since blocks of four became the deficit approach to team defense, it has been difficult for players to keep their feet. I use a rotational system that asks players ahead of the ball to run to the middle so a player behind the ball can be released to defend the ball. I noticed that Guyana was using a similar approach against Canada in Olympic qualifying quite effectively against a vastly superior team. As long as players chase down the channels and try to run down player from behind, you will see unnecessary tackling.

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