From goalkeepers, from referees ... the sound of a scandalous silence

By Paul Gardner

The appalling story came from Germany, just 14 days ago. It was widely reported. And it was wisely reviewed by Mike Woitalla on this website, under the headline: “Will This Be the Wakeup Call?”

Wolfsburg goalkeeper Koen Casteels had come close to killing an opponent, Stuttgart’s captain, Christian Gentner. Casteel had come racing off his line and jumped heavily into Gentner. Doing what goalkeepers are wont to do, Casteels led with a raised knee. The knee crashed violently into Gentner’s head.

Seconds later, Gentner was sprawled on the ground with eye-socket fractures, a broken nose, a fractured upper jaw, and a severe concussion. Being hit by a bulldozer could hardly have inflicted worse injuries. 

But there is more. It gets worse. Racing on to the field -- there was no invitation from the referee -- came the Stuttgart doctor, Raymond Best, who instantly sensed a life-threatening emergency. Best was in time to prevent Gentner from choking to death on his own tongue.

A player at death’s door, saved by an alert doctor who had to disregard accepted soccer procedure to be rapidly on the scene.

And if this had been an amateur game, with no doctor present, what then? It hardly bears thinking about.

As I have been warning of the dangers involved in these goalkeeper challenges for over three years, I suppose it can be said that this is the example I have been waiting for. In one way, yes, I suppose so. It allows me to say, “I told you so.” I’d rather not be saying that. If I was waiting for this, I was fearing it more. No soccer player, wherever he may be playing, deserves the horrors inflicted on Gentner.

So my fears have been justified. But how much better it would be if they had been acted upon, if the soccer authorities had done what they should have done years ago, and banned this type of goalkeeper play.

Hence the headline to Woitalla’s article: Will This Be the Wakeup Call? You’d think so. A player near death with appalling injuries -- how can such a situation -- a predictable situation -- be ignored.

The immediate response in Germany was encouraging, with a number of referees and TV commentators insisting this was at least dangerous play by the goalkeeper. Which is where soccer’s problem begins. Big time.

Because the game referee made no call. He saw absolutely nothing with Casteels’ brutal assault. After all, goalkeepers make similar challenges all the time, and are never called for a foul.  That referee non-call was backed up by no less an authority than Hellmut Krug, the German referee boss, who called it “reasonable.” 

That, of course, needs no comment from me. It is an utterly silly statement that Krug should be ashamed of. Krug knows full well that Casteels’s challenge could easily -- and properly -- have been ruled as dangerous play, or reckless play, or play endangering the safety of an opponent.

Yet Krug also knows that referees never make that call against goalkeepers. Against field players, yes. But never against goalkeepers. Perhaps Herr Krug can identify for me where in the rules it says that goalkeepers are exempt from such calls. But of course he can’t, there is no such exemption.

Goalkeepers and referees are engaged in a conspiracy that allows soccer’s rules to be flouted, and which can result in life-threatening injuries.

It is of no interest to me to know where and why this conspiracy began. Enough to know that it is a dangerous disgrace, a self-inflicted slur on both goalkeepers and referees.

I mentioned above my opinion that the “soccer authorities” should have long since banned such goalkeeper thuggery. Meaning FIFA or UEFA or maybe the EPL or, at a pinch, those somnolent “guardians” of the rules, IFAB. They are the people who should respond to this wakeup call. But I have no confidence at all that they will do so. Two weeks have passed without any of them even raising an eyebrow.

But the necessary outrage and demands for action could just as easily come from two rather different groups: the goalkeepers and the referees themselves.

Really, these are the two groups who should break the silence. Are there no referees out there who find the situation unacceptable? A situation under which they are required -- willingly, as far as we know -- to make a mockery of the sport by choosing to ignore dangerous fouls?

Is there not a single goalkeeper -- or goalkeeper coach -- willing to come out and admit that seriously injuring opponents should never be part of a goalkeeper’s game, and that it has to stop. Even if that means -- which it will -- a radical revision of the goalkeeper’s role in the sport?

That referees are silent is hardly anything new. Communicating -- i.e. letting others, like players or coaches or fans, know what they are doing -- has never been their strong point.

But goalkeepers? So ready, in their modern version, to yell and scream at everyone and to tell everyone else what to do? Why are they so silent on this vital issue? 

The giveaway for both referees and goalkeepers is that they are totally silent. No one has come forward to defend what’s going on, to make a stand in favor of brutal play. And I doubt anyone will.

But someone, some authority, some influential soccer group, has to take action. Everything possible must be done to make sure that what happened to Christian Gentner will not happen to anyone else. 

A simple instruction from FIFA that, in future the rules against violent play (nothing new here, these are existing rules) must be vigorously applied to goalkeepers. That is all.

At the moment, precisely nothing is being done.

21 comments about "From goalkeepers, from referees ... the sound of a scandalous silence".
  1. Ed M, September 29, 2017 at 7:12 p.m.

    Time for Mr. Gardner to retire and get someone who really knows the game and how it works. "Conspiracy?" Come now, the Referees only follow what FIFA tells them . If you have an issue write about FIFA and the IFAB. OR, even better, write about the coaches who are teaching these techniques to the goalkeepers. Stop always placing blames of the Referees or writing to try and stir up readership. Poor writing shows big time. Not knowing the facts makes it worse.

  2. SoccerdadCA 06, September 29, 2017 at 8:02 p.m.

    @ED M, I couldn't disagree more with your comment. I don't always agree with Mr. Gardner's opinions however I believe he has this one spot on. Goalkeepers for far too long have had way too much latitude under the guise of "protecting themselves" to the extent that anything now goes. Running full speed into and through other players without any regard to their already established positions absolutely falls under the heading of dangerous or reckless play. Referees have no qualms about issuing yellow and red cards to field players that jump up with their arms anywhere near another players head, not even requiring contact sometimes, yet goalkeepers can lead with their knee after a full sprint and knock a player out without so much as a stoppage in play? That's just crazy and frankly stupid. I was always taught that AFTER the keeper has established their horizontal position that they should jump straight up with your knee to protect yourself against field players barreling into you while your midsection is exposed. That is a far cry from barreling into another player with ANY part of your body who has already established their space. It's time for referees to enforce the same reckless play rules on goalkeepers that they do on field players.

  3. Kevin Sims, September 29, 2017 at 9:55 p.m.

    Long overdue that such violent and dangerous moments be addressed.

  4. Mike Calcaterra, September 29, 2017 at 10:07 p.m.

    @En M @SoccerdadCA 06 Obviously, neither SDad and Mr. Gardner are players and have never blown a whistle in a higher level match. I have watched the video of this play over and over and I have no problem with the way the the Laws were administrated here. The consequences are horrible but the play is a conflict of how referees are instructed to call play and how goalkeepers are taught.

    Any goalkeeping coach worth a damn teaches goalkeepers to lead with a knee. Plan B is to either cower or lead with your hands and face. You must be a couple of marbles short of a game to be a soccer keeper to start with but if they were deemed to have committed serious foul play for leading with a knee, no keepers would survive a match.

    Both critics here are looking at the consequences of the play as justification for criticizing the no-call. The referee does not have that option. You are also criticizing the ref for not being as prescient as a team doctor. Sometimes we are but often our focus is elsewhere and the AR is too far away to assist. I have sadly been in the position to be both blowing my whistle and calling for assistance at the same time as the injury. The injury was a compound fracture of both the fibula and tibia of a high school player. I was actually anticipating the injury which is why the precipitous whistle. The match was canceled by the AD while the medical team was still working on the player. I was not sure I could have continued.

    As I was leaving the field I was verbally assaulted by coach of the injured player. I had the stoic referee act down pat by then but it was hours before I stopped trembling.

    Only another experience referee could understand. By the Laws of the Game, the injured player should have been carded for dangerous play. The game was being televised and the video clearly showed that my after game incident report was exactly what happened.

    That was academic play. I watch professional matches with varying degrees of horror at the way the ALL are officiated. Dangerous play is rarely called despite regular infractions. Serious foul play is equally rarely used. That consistency cannot be an accident, it can only be how they are instructed to make their calls. That needs to change. It would not have really changed this frightening outcome but if the Laws were strictly followed, the game would be far safer.

    Note to SoccerdadCA: Keepers are taught to always be mobile. If they have an "established" position they have only ornamental value. They are taught when they leave their line to go straight to the ball. It is nowhere in the Laws or the Decisions, but it is a rare match where you do not see a field player jumping or diving to avoid a keeper. They understand that chances are the keeper doesn't even see them.

  5. R2 Dad replied, October 1, 2017 at 12:22 p.m.

    "Only another experience referee could understand". I call BS on your claim. Officiating at a higher level (whatever that means) or not, everyone here knows the game and has a relevant opinion. And lets be perfectly clear--there are boatloads of crappy coaches and referees who have been doing their mediocre jobs for ages, but that doesn't preclude them from learning/improving/changing. Same for the LOTG--a major re-write in the 90's protected skilled players, but this tradition of keepers crippling field players must end. Goalkeeping coaches and their charges must change how they see the game and their "right" to injure opponents without consequence.

  6. R2 Dad replied, October 1, 2017 at 5:26 p.m.

     You have a shockingingly poor understanding of the LOTG: "Both critics here are looking at the consequences of the play as justification for criticizing the no-call. The referee does not have that option. " I am not surprised you are a "high level official"!

  7. R2 Dad replied, October 1, 2017 at 5:33 p.m.

    Mark, what is your first duty as a referee? Protect the health and safety of the players. Everything else you've said is just patting yourself on the back.

  8. Aaron Apruzzese replied, October 12, 2017 at 3:32 a.m.

    As a Keeper, you summed my response exceptionally well. Unfortunately, spectators have the luxury to parse video but have rarely ever have had to live in the moment. If GK are not allowed to protect themselves, you are going to have an exponential increase in severe GK injuries. Soccer is a contact sport and if you can't handle that, knit.

  9. Aaron Apruzzese replied, October 12, 2017 at 3:36 a.m.

    R2Dad - teach field players to shoot from outside the box and they won't have to collide with a keeper. No rewriting of rules required. Your ignorance of the game is apparent. Contact is part of the game and unfortunately as with any contact sport injuries occur.

  10. Aaron Apruzzese replied, October 12, 2017 at 3:54 a.m.

    Additional to my previous comments, where is the outrage for GK injuries?
    Field players are taught to undercut, body check, and run through keepers. I have received heads to the face on balls that I caught well above my own head where the field player had no chance for a header, yet that is considered him playing the ball in the moment. Contact is part of the sport and there will be contact if you come down into the box. Unfortunately, injuries result on both sides yet that does not require a change to the game.

  11. Mike Calcaterra, September 29, 2017 at 10:09 p.m.

    Oops. Neither are referees, Mr. Gardner was a fine player,

  12. Mike Calcaterra replied, October 1, 2017 at 2:13 p.m.

    R2 Dad  After you finished your calling me out as BS, you proceded to make some valid ADDITIONAL points to the conversation which in no way disproved any of my assertions. Presumably, you believe my assertion that non-referees do not see the game in the same way or know the rules as well as a high level spectator or coach.  Most experiences referees would agree with me. 

    When I took my first USSF National Coaching Course, after several hours of instruction on the Laws by a top FIFA instructor, a situational based test of the candidates resulted in 2 candidates passing and 32 failing, many quite badly. Most of the candidates were already in paid coaching positions. Two of us were certified referees.  Care to guess the two successful candidates?  The other candidates returneed to the classroom after the evening scrimmage. It took until after midnight for most to return to the dorm.  All is took to pass was 70%.  So no, referees may or may not be good and many are dreadful. Most, however, understand the laws better than the overwhelming majority of non-referees.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, October 2, 2017 at 11:49 p.m.

    Mark, I certainly appreciate your comments regarding the current state, but at least some of us want to see a change in the advice to referees and how the LOTG are applied to charging and jumping by keepers. We think field players need more protection. I know that I am being influenced by the horrific injury in this case, but I still think some change is needed. I think most of understand that you, as a USSF ref, cannot change how matches are officiated. This has to come from USSF. 

    In your experience I am sure you have seen keepers colliding and injuring their own team mates. I have seen it. It is not just opponents who get hurt.

    Most of my experience is in adult recreational matches where going to work the next morning is important to sane players. So a common practice is that forwards don't contest 50/50 balls with keepers. Nothing is organized that way; it just happens. The keepers know it and appreciate it. It works for recreational soccer, but it obviously won't work for competitive amateur and professional soccer matches. 

  14. John Soares, September 29, 2017 at 11:04 p.m.

    Brutality....sorry, "overly aggressive/dangerous play" should not be tolerated.... period. EVEN (big even) if the referee missed it. There is no excuse for the for the dismissals and justifications coming from those that saw the play and replay. Mark, you make a good point as far as referees go. They can not anticipate and or make a call based on what you "think" is going to happen... been there. That does NOT change the fact that after the match authorities can/should take the necessary actions against the offender.
    This one is history can't change it. We can take steps to assure it is not repeated.

  15. feliks fuksman, September 30, 2017 at 12:36 p.m.

    Excellent article by Paul Gardner!  Something needs to be down by people in charge of the sport....

  16. feliks fuksman, September 30, 2017 at 12:37 p.m.

    Excellent article by Paul Gardner!  Something needs to be down by people in charge of the sport....

  17. feliks fuksman, September 30, 2017 at 12:38 p.m.

    Excellent article by Paul Gardner!  Something needs to be down by people in charge of the sport....

  18. Ron L, September 30, 2017 at 12:56 p.m.

    Scandalous? Calling it a scandal undercuts the credibility of the issue that is already important.  First of all the doctor did not
    break protocol. Any decent Referee in his pre-game conversation with team officials is that on life threatening issues no invitation is required. It already given.  Paul is right is saying that this should be seen as Serious Foul Play.  This is similar to the changes FIFA made in instructions regarding the arm on aerial challenges.  The use of the arm as a tool or weapon and hard forearm to soft head.  The knee straight forward as in this play clearly is a weapon used to intimidate.  I used it quite often when I played at a high level and now teach my GKs to cross their knee across their body for protection.  The game and laws need to evolve. Just as it has over the 100+ years it's been around.  But also Paul needs to get out of the plushy press box and get down to the pitch to reconnect to the current world of
    the game.

  19. feliks fuksman, September 30, 2017 at 9:42 p.m.

    Unbelievable!  Crazy!  It definitely needs to be changed; 

  20. Miguel Dedo, September 30, 2017 at 11:14 p.m.

    Law 12 begins as follows:  "1. Direct free kick
    A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences
    against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless,
    reckless or using excessive force:
    • charges
    • jumps at
    ... "
    "Jumps at" in this law refers to direction, not intention.
    The law applies to "a player"   the law provides no exception for goalkeepers.
    New legislation is not needed, only straightforward enforcement of the Law as written.

  21. aaron dutch, October 22, 2017 at 12:51 p.m.

    Over the next 5-10 years a high level player will die on the field. the physics/Kinetics are becoming just like the NFL. If everyone can run 4.4-4.7 40's & bench/clean 200+ lbs, jump 30 inches, they all have a ft/lbs ratio high enough that at full speed contact it becomes a car crash. The soft headgear needs to be implemented and new LOTG needs to be created around saftey going forward.

    We will of course wait for the deaths/horrible life threating injuries etc.. until we make the changes we shoud have 10 years ago. 

    P.S. I have coached,refed,played for 40 years at a low level & watched, enjoyed at a high level.

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