So much to dislike about soccer: a critic writes

Ambrose Bierce  defined a critic as "a person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him." That is a good description of myself on the sofa this past Saturday evening, beer glass half empty, and ready to enjoy a few hours of sport after a hard day's refereeing. Except that instead of appreciating great play, fine goals and admirable sportsmanship, I only found a whole list of things to dislike.

I watched a mixture of highlight broadcasts and live games. And although I swooned and cooed at the beauty of Luis Suarez's goal that put Atletico Madrid 2-0 up against the now serially desperate Barcelona, I mainly found myself aggrieved at pernicious trends and recurring incidents that have entrenched themselves in the game.

1. Joy-killing VAR. I know, we've discussed this many times before, but that doesn't make it any easier to tolerate. In the 66th minute of the German second division game between FC Nürnberg and Hannover 96, Nürnberg's midfielder Tom Krauss finished off a swift counterattack to put his team 1-0 up. He celebrated with his team and the entire rocking stadium. Everyone jogged back to the center circle, the TV producer clocked the score at 1-0, and then the Video Assistant Referee, that invisible, pernickety annihilator of festive spontaneity, decreed that during the buildup -- unseen by the naked eye of the assistant referee, or anyone else -- Krauss's teammate Nikola Dovedan had apparently been offside by the shaving of a toenail. Indirect free-kick. Euphoria flattened. The game ended 0-0.

How can a sport -- where goals are in any case such a rare commodity -- do this to itself, again and again? Dovedan's toenail was not seeking an unfair advantage. The referee's assistant did not make a clear and obvious error. Props to the English Premier League, which this season has stopped cancelling goals like this. The Bundesliga has to follow suit and cease this infuriating, entertainment-destroying interference.

2. Unhealthy adulation. German state TV was showing highlights of Manchester United-Everton. The focus was on Cristiano Ronaldo, from start to finish. What did the goal-notching legend do this week? Score a hat-trick? Beat seven players and fire in from 30 yards? No, he was on the bench. That was the story. We were shown his reaction when United scored, though. We got to see him coming on and missing a chance. The whole spotlight was on CR7, the game itself was apparently just a side-show. But soccer's a team sport, right? Good luck passing that message on to young players when broadcasters are besotted with the brand and prone to slavishly deify the superstar.

3. The cult of the coach. During the above-mentioned Atletico-Barcelona game in LaLiga, the cameras spent much of their time on the coaches. There were two separate five-act plays with the following titles: The Last Days of Ronald Koeman and The Eternal Dance of Diego Simeone The broadcasters were keen to show us Koeman on the phone up in a private box, where he was serving a touchline suspension. Was he selling his shares in the club? Making vacation plans to follow his inevitable upcoming dismissal? Ordering out for tacos? Meanwhile, down on the touchline, Simeone had the stage all to himself. Shouting, gesticulating, motivating, cajoling, despairing, ululating and grooving to the beat of the crowd, the Argentine's performance was impressive and highly expressive, as always. Only, why do we have to see it? What does this exaggerated showmanship and pumped-up hysteria have to do with the game? Nowadays, a cynic might counter, absolutely everything. How I miss those passive but observant gurus of yore who sat still and watched the action with care, taking notes and not harassing the match officials. Which brings me on to ...

4. Remonstrative Players. Every decision, every time -- there are certain teams and players, and they are absolutely in the majority, who see themselves obligated to protest the award of each and every foul and throw-in. Like it's in their contracts and they'll be transferred to the Belarussian third division if they don't let the referee know their alternative opinion, at length and with emotion -- that facile alibi for moronic conduct. Please just shut up, now and forever, and get on with the game. It doesn't mean you're a 'competitor,' it just means you're a jerk. And referees, show them a card for their troubles. You're allowed to do that -- it says so expressly in Law 12.

5. Pulling, holding and shoving at free kicks and corner kicks. See point 4. Though it might not be beyond the imagination of the game's millions of coaches to come up with some alternatives that don't involve just crowding the six-yard box, where a promising dead-ball position results in nothing, yet again.

6. Away kits. In the Bundesliga, TSG Hoffenheim was wearing an all-pinkish creation for their visit to VfB Stuttgart. Their 3-1 defeat was fully deserved on aesthetic grounds alone. Barcelona had a sort of pastel purple on, which from a distance looked more like grey. These uniforms have no connection with their clubs, they're just dressing up for a night at the theater with Diego Simeone, creating ugly and superfluous second and third shirts to rip off gullible fans. One positive uniform -- Hannover wore all white with green socks, a nod to the actual club colors. Kit design is yet another realm of soccer infiltrated by cash-seeking kidders, con-artists and charlatans. Don't buy it. But don't beg for it either ...

7. People in the crowd with signs begging for a player’s shirt. Look, I know this is going to sound like the height of curmudgeonly complaints, but seriously, do these people have no dignity? Having paid God knows how much for a ticket to get in, you are now publicly begging in front of a potential audience of millions? What makes you think that you deserve a player's shirt any more than the other 60,000 people in the stadium? Get down to the team's mega-store and fork out a hundred bucks like everyone else. The club should hawk the players' shirts on line and give the money to a decent cause, like The Society for Moaning Saturday Night Sofa Fans.

My actual list was much longer, but that's enough for one column. I'd hate to come across as someone who's difficult to please.

16 comments about "So much to dislike about soccer: a critic writes".
  1. R2 Dad, October 5, 2021 at 10:50 a.m.

    LOL. The only element of Law12 applied is the card for unsporting behavior. Everything else is ignored by players and not enforced by officials.

  2. Michael Saunders, October 5, 2021 at 11:38 a.m.

    It is ironic that many dislike the VAR for its accuracy.  Most do so it because the spirit of the major change in offside calls years ago, whereby the benefit of the doubt was given to the attacker versus the defender, was literally negated by the technology.   There are many suggestions to redefine what is offside; but,  the majority are rooted  to the "second to last defender" foundation of the law. 
    The fundamental fact is that technology is DISRUPTIVE in all walks of life.  As Ian points out, the EPL recognized that the  the main objection to the VAR & offside, is the time for reviewing it.  Consequently, its decision on post play reviews has been limited.  That said, new technology has been developed for a semi-automated offside where by a signal is sent to the AR via technology that a player is in an offside position.  Then it becomes a decision by the AR of whether or not the flag  should be raised in case of deflections vs actually playing the ball by a defender, or if a player standing in offside position interferes with a GK / defender from playing the ball, etc.   
    Unfortunately, all that does is solve the optics of avoiding a full VAR review but it does not address what should be defined as an offside. To that end, I am an advocate of Wenger's suggested "definition" change that any part of the attacker's body that legally can score a goal is still even with a second last defender, including the back of the attacker's trailing leg/foot,  then the attacker is still onside. 

  3. Richard Scully, October 5, 2021 at 11:39 a.m.

    VAR is not the problem.  The problem is the rules which, for some bizarre reason, make it as hard as possible to score.  A player should be declared onside if any part of his body is onside.  Why is FIFA so scared of a few extra goals?  See the NFL as a guide; which consistently is willing to tweak their rules to make the gridiron game more entertaining.  NFL big games amost always live up to the hype - indeed they often exceeed it. Whereas, in big Premier league games for instance, between the best teams, the defence usually takes over, since the rules provide them with an inherent advantage.   As Mark Twain once said.  "an Englishman does it because its been done before, an American does it because it hasn't."  

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, October 6, 2021 at 3:44 a.m.

    VAR is a problem, but the root problem is fans demanding perfection in officiating. The sport doesn't need perfect officiating and neither does soccer as an entertainment industry. Fairness, honesty, competency and a best effort is all that is needed from officials. 

  5. Matt Cardillo, October 5, 2021 at 12:57 p.m.

    The amazing thing here is that the majority agree with you Ian. More amazing is that all of these complaints/observations are solvable. There's one complaint that i could not be more in tune with you. The remonstrating and moaning after fouls...the standing the ball and complaining BS. You do not see that in other sports and when you do, it's rare. You don't see it b/c there's a price to pay. You don't see NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB players routinely complaining. 

    Send the signal at the beginning of a season that dissenting will be enforced. Start handing out cards in the first couple of games. The players and coaches will catch on quickly. It is just really NOT THAT HARD.

  6. Peter Bechtold replied, October 5, 2021 at 2:14 p.m.

    Your example of MLB is misguided; have you been watching baseball ? The managers complain endlessly, and foul language is very common. Speaking of which, foul language is the order of the day, not the exception, in the NFL and NBA. Soccer is the least offender b/c of the cards. Although I would grant that the protesting varies widely in different parts of the world where I have been(three continents).

  7. Matthew Shaddock, October 5, 2021 at 1:21 p.m.

    Lots of front porch stick shaking going on here. I'd prefer to enjoy and celebrate the beautiful game. 

  8. Doug Broadie, October 5, 2021 at 1:28 p.m.

    I agree with Richard.  If they are going to use a toenail, then let the toenail be onside.  Remember why the offside was introduced back in the dark days, it was to keep a player from sitting outside the penalty area waiting to poach a goal.  (Soccer history 101)
    If we are going there, let's look at a "FREE" kick.  With a player standing in front of the ball, it cannot be released in an attacking mannor.  The last time I looked at this law, it said that a player will immediately move away 10 yards.  Hmmm.  One yellow was all it took to get my premier league players off the ball.
    How about obstruction.  Players run in front of other players to keep them from trying to get to the ball without the ball being within playing distance.  See it all the time.  As Phil Shane has stated, he last saw this called in 1998.
    We have enough laws in the game.  All we need are referees to call them. 
    Most professional referees are out there to call the game for the entertainment value, not fairness.  They are very bad role models for new referees.

  9. Mike Lynch, October 5, 2021 at 1:33 p.m.

    Ian, I agree with you; our beautiful game is not doing itself any favors. Regarding technology and VAR, the problem is more about the LOTG where an eyelash makes you offsides (when will they move to the same objective standard but advantage to the attacker (ie, light between last defender and attacker). I am really not interested in all the coach coverage, too, as if they don't group hug after every goal then there must be dissent in the ranks. I am surprised you left out my biggest frustration, allowing tactical fouling to go unpunished. With the tactics evolving to largely counterattacking and speed, allowing players to foul to slow/stop play is ruining the game. There must be a bigger punishment for deliberate foul to stop the play. Not only does it prevent the unfolding of countless more scoring chances which would be great to watch (on both sides of the ball), but it also prevents teams from being better defensively. It's a big negative in my beliefs and one that only the refs are in position to affect.

  10. Eddie Rockwell, October 5, 2021 at 1:44 p.m.

    And to jump on the ridiculousness of the constant and disruptive players constantly complaining bandwagon, it's sending a really bad message to our youth players. They try these antics in their own games because they watch the million dollar crybabies.

    Ditto for the foul where the defender nicks the shin guard and the lightly fouled player writhes on the ground grabbing foot or ankle that hasn't been touched, erstwhile glancing in his periphery to see if the hoped for caution has been issued. Then, miraculously healed by the magic spray and a couple steps of practiced limp, runs full speed back onto the field to bless everyone with his return to the game...

  11. Peggy Cowen, October 5, 2021 at 2:01 p.m.

    Hey guys.  May I throw my biggest grip out, in addition to Mr. Rockwell's.  Just call it what it is "Hollywood acting". This silly show of fake injury is at it's worst in men's games.  Women go down and they usually bounce back up.  They stay down (no rolling around) if they are actually injured.  I thought there was a rule about excessive display.
    The sad thing about this is that our young players are starting to behave the same way.  Thoughts from a loyal Seattle Sounders fan since the 1970's.  

  12. R2 Dad replied, October 7, 2021 at 2:40 p.m.

    I have fewer problems with older teens flopping than I do with the little guys. Recent match had a U11 kid go down twice inside the box after a poor shot on goal. The first time, maybe he landed on his ankle awkwardly, and the coaches and parent had to come out on the field, insisting on treatment on the pitch, I was the heartless referee for insisting they move to the touchline, blah blah blah. But eventually he pops up, good as new. The second time, the same routine, the parents whining, the drama just reinforcing the behavior of the little player. Kid pops up to lavish applause from the parents. Puke. And these are the matches where, because of the shortage, I get parent volunteer ARs  that don't know the LOTG, can't call offside properly. You finish two 35 minute halves and are ready to go home. I have a growning list of clubs I will no longer referee, due to the combination of player/coach/parent dysfunction.

  13. Peter Bechtold, October 5, 2021 at 2:26 p.m.

    Your comments re VAR should be addressed to the FA in England where the application limps far behind continental Europe. If you watch Serie A and La Liga, also Bundesliga 1, they all handle VAR better than in UK. I wonder ,does the mindset have something to do with Anglo-Saxon Law vs. Code Napoleon and Roman Law ?

  14. beautiful game, October 5, 2021 at 5:26 p.m.

    FIFA has decided that less stoppages benefit the game. Consequently, multiple rules are not enforced at its behest. Obviously, the LOTG are under ridicule because FIFA remains comatose in adjusting just about every single LOTG that it has inadvertently crippled via the introduction of technology and lack of common sense re-making. The game needs help with the nightmare toe-nail off-side, etc., to be once and for all resolved.  Yet, I wouldn't hold my breath for any positive action by the current FIFA regime. 

  15. Betty Lisec, October 7, 2021 at 11:14 a.m.

    Totally agree on away kits! Ridiculous ! They should reflect club colors. 
    Also agree on the VAR offside decisions! So many are just "by a hair" and as you stated, not meant to gain advantage. 

  16. Ian Plenderleith, October 13, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.

    The above version replaces an earlier one, filling out complaint number 3: 'The cult of the coach'. Many thanks for all the comments. 

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