Commentary

The four-letter word that threatens to sabotage MLS moves against goalkeeper violence

The news from Howard Webb and his PRO group of referees is good -- but not good enough.

Webb and PRO have finally discovered that there is a problem with "aggressive" goalkeeping. Indeed there is. It is a problem that I first brought up in this column in 1991 ... 27 years ago. So I am surely bound to be a bit staggered when I hear Webb announcing that "We've been monitoring that situation ..." Because this monitoring has never been mentioned before. It was not mentioned last year, so the logical conclusion is that PRO woke up to the problem only last season.

A great deal of what Webb says is positive and suggests -- at long last -- a real interest in the problem and a willingness to solve it. He more or less admits that goalkeepers are getting away with fouls that would be called if committed by an outfield player. He talks of penalizing goalkeepers for obvious fouls -- ones that, at the moment, are never called. That might well mean a red card for the keeper, and a penalty kick. That is progress indeed -- I have never before heard a referee talk in these terms.

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So it will seem churlish for me -- as one who has been advocating such moves for decades -- to criticize what Webb is saying. But churlish I must be. Because throughout Webb's comments I find a disruptive undertone of dismissal, a quite strong suggestion that this is a minor matter that will be dealt with quite easily.

For example: He starts by belittling its frequency -- "At the moment we don't see it as such a big problem here." It is something not considered important enough to be one of this season's "points of emphasis" for referees.

FURTHER READING: J'accuse!! Why is soccer ignoring the problem of goalkeeper violence?

Webb then concentrates on a major part of the problem: goalkeepers who charge, knee raised, into opponents, and the subsequent knee-to-head collisions. He begins his description of such incidents in this way: "if a goalkeeper comes out to punch an aerial ball and gets there late ..."

That word, that four-letter word, "late," threatens to undermine all the good things Webb is saying.

Firstly, it implies that if a goalkeeper challenge is "on time," or even early, then it is acceptable. Thus a keeper's knee smashing into an opponent's head is only a foul if it is late?

Secondly, "late" is a word that allows a referee to greatly reduce his need to call a foul, an "escape" word likely to take nearly all the bite out of any attempt to rein in knee-to-head fouls.

I cannot believe that Webb, an immensely experienced referee, intends to severely weaken a measure intended to prevent serious injuries. But that is what he is saying.


In Bundesliga action last September, Christian Gentner suffered severe injuries after being struck by goalkeeper Koen Casteels' knee -- and no foul was called.

Also tending to lessen the impact of Webb's criticism of aggressive goalkeepers, is his parallel sermon on how goalkeeper's themselves need to be protected. Agreed. But it is an odd point to make, when most soccer people know perfectly well that goalkeepers are already over-protected (the indulgence shown by referees to keepers is surely a major contributing factor to the dangerous aggressiveness that keepers indulge in).

There is also the matter of goalkeepers diving at the feet of opponents -- something that should be banned as so obviously likely to cause serious injuries -- in this case to the goalkeepers themselves. Webb doesn't really get into this aspect at all. To me, this action is already banned under the "playing in a dangerous manner" clause in rule 12. But it is never called that way by referees. Webb comments: "Goalkeepers can use their hands and therefore the dynamic in the way they enter challenges is slightly different." Which, to put it mildly, is not helpful.

The emphasis should, again, be on preventing serious injuries (head injuries, in particular) not on trying to excuse those injuries because of a "different dynamic."

So much remains to be revealed during the upcoming season. Referees in action will tell us whether they are adjusting their calls -- they are, says Webb, "being told to be vigilant and firm in terms of challenges by goalkeepers that are deemed worthy of being penalized in the same way that an outfield player [would be penalized]. If the actions of a goalkeeper are careless, reckless or using excessive force, then the player will be penalized."

That is excellent, plain English. But even here, there is a problem. This is a major change in the way that referees call a game. Not a change in the rules, but almost the same thing. It does mean a big adjustment by goalkeepers in how they play the game. But how can such a thing be required only of MLS goalkeepers, and not of all the other hundreds of thousands of keepers throughout the world? MLS keepers will be asked to play differently from all the others -- will that not put them at a disadvantage in international play, when MLS requirements will not apply?

What has to happen is that guidance has to come from the top, from FIFA, even from IFAB, and it has to apply worldwide. That scene is not promising. No one at the top level, internationally, has ever addressed -- or even acknowledged -- the problem.

FURTHER READING: MLS Reffing in 2018: VAR from the get-go and the Points of Emphasis

5 comments about "The four-letter word that threatens to sabotage MLS moves against goalkeeper violence".
  1. beautiful game, March 2, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    Webb's career as a referee is a prima facia case why the interprestation of the LOTG is in a comatose state. The man in the middle, like Webb,  is totally in charge of the game to the point of awful subjective interpretation. That kind of mentality is a cancer to the sport and FIFA is derelict in its complacency in refusing to address the shortcomings of officials on the pitch in being fair and proactive.   

  2. Bob Ashpole, March 2, 2018 at 3:40 p.m.

    Good article. I was also happy to see an emphasis on cleaning up persistent fouls and the epidemic of holding and shoving before restarts. Both would improve the level of play.

  3. beautiful game replied, March 2, 2018 at 8:04 p.m.

    Webb is all talk and no action.

  4. Wooden Ships, March 2, 2018 at 5:05 p.m.

    Perhaps the MLS can influence FIFA. Holy cow.

  5. Bill Riviere, March 4, 2018 at 4:11 p.m.

    Great article about inaction where action is sorely needed.  Sometimes there's too much misguided and officious "I know best" in the referee management ranks.....


    It won't help much in the overall picture, but I plan to start calling dangerous plays by the GK, either plays that could harm a field player or those that could harm the GK--such as dangerous head first sliding (high school and youth)

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