Monday, July 03, 2006

What happened to the soccer I used to play?

By Tiger Fan

Since we’re in the midst of the summer lull for Mizzou sports, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the World Cup – an event I was truly excited about a month ago, but now I find depressing. No, it’s not the pathetic showing put forth by Team USA. And no, it’s not because all the games happen while I’m at work. The 2006 World Cup is depressing because it is proving American soccer critics right.

I’m not talking about the ignorant meatheads who argue that soccer is boring or claim that soccer players aren’t real athletes. These assertions will always be foolish. Anyone who thinks soccer is boring doesn’t understand it and anyone who thinks soccer players aren’t real athletes have never tried to play. I actually heard a radio commentator say recently that the only people who play soccer are those who can’t excel in football, baseball or basketball. Really? I’d like to see great “athletes” like Cecil Fielder or David Wells try to stop a shot from David Beckham or watch even the best DBs in the NFL try to keep up with DeMarcus Beasley or Ronaldinho… for an entire 90 minutes… without a 35 second break between each play.

But this year’s World Cup has proven the other two most popular criticisms of soccer: 1) The refs have too much power and discretion, and 2) The players act like wimps because they are constantly taking dives. In all my seasons of soccer, I never thought these were legitimate knocks. Now I’m finding that I agree.

Growing up, I played soccer two seasons a year for 13 years, starting at the tender age of five. I also was a referee for several seasons. In all that time, I never received a yellow card… and I only issued one as a ref. More importantly, I’m happy to say that I can’t think of a single game that was decided almost entirely by the refs. Sure, there were games where we thought the officiating was pretty bad, but it was usually bad all the way around and could be chalked up to the fact that the guys reffing a bunch of 10-year-olds didn’t have a whole lot of experience.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the referees at this year’s World Cup. They seem to think that fans have traveled thousands of miles and paid thousands of dollars to see the referees decide the outcome of games. It’s been ridiculous and disgraceful. The most blatant problem has been the record number of yellow and red cards, which has been well documented. After the first round of play, more cards had been issued than in any previous World Cup. That meant some of the world’s best players were watching games from the sideline. If the cards were justified, that would be one thing… but most of them have not been. To me, cards are only warranted when a) the player committing the foul did so out of bad sportsmanship or b) the player committing the foul put the other player at a serious risk of injury. That’s it.

The other problem has been penalty kicks. When I was a ref, I never wanted to call a PK that would decide the game. The closer a game was, the less likely I was to call one. In other words, if it is a tie game late in the second half, it will need to be a blatant foul in the box to get the call. It’s like the way refs used to call basketball: No autopsy, no foul in the final 10 seconds or so (of course, they seem to moving away from that in the NBA… just ask the Mavericks).

The World Cup refs apparently don’t share my philosophies, as we have seen countless games decided by cards and penalty kicks. Here are some examples:

-USA v. Italy: I’m not sure if this game would have turned out differently without the cards, but the unfortunate thing is that we will never know. Three players were ejected from this game and in my opinion, all three were bad decisions. The elbow that broke McBride’s nose deserved a yellow card, nothing more. Same with Mastroeni’s slide tackle. And Pope’s tackle, while dangerous, was not severe enough in my opinion to give a second yellow card for. It should have been 11 on 11, not 10 on 9. As much as I hate to say it, the only thing the ref did right in that game was disallow Beasley’s goal.

-Netherlands v. Portugal: Sixteen yellow cards! Four red cards! I know it was a chippy game, but come on – that’s ridiculous. I didn’t actually get to see the game, but I can’t imagine anything short of a Ron Artest-style melee in the stands that would warrant that many cards. The ridiculous part is how those cards would affect whichever team won that game for the rest of the tournament. Amazingly, Portugal still beat England without the services of three starters, but you have to think all those cards will come back to haunt them at some point. Here’s a situation where a ref is deciding not just the game, but affecting the entire tournament. Absurd.

-USA v. Ghana: To be clear, USA played poorly throughout the tournament and did not deserve to beat Ghana and make it to the second-round. That being said… the penalty kick called against Onyewu was ridiculous. Both guys were pushing and yes, had it been in the middle of the field, I would have been okay with a penalty against either one of them. But in a game that important, I just don’t see how a referee can justify a penalty kick in that situation. To me, that’s a no-call. There was still lots of time left and it should have been left up to the players to decide that match.

-Italy v. Australia: This is the most clear-cut example of a referee deciding a match in the entire tournament. The referee awarded a penalty kick to Italy in stoppage time of the 90th minute on a play that replays showed was probably a dive. If you are that referee, you have to be absolutely certain about that call. But Totti took the dive and the ref bailed out a 10-man Italy squad on the game’s final play. I know it’s easy to say from home on my couch, but I swallow my whistle in that situation.

The Italy game leads me to the other problem with soccer today: diving. Italy is the biggest culprit, but everybody does it. And I don’t know why. Maybe they teach them this practice at a young age in other countries, but no one ever did that when I was playing. No phantom fouls. No fake injuries. No dramatic exits from the field, only to return completely healthy one minute later. Just good, hard soccer. I left the field twice for an injury in my playing career: once when I broke my arm in half playing goalie and once when I broke my ankle. That’s it. Every other time I just got up and kept playing. That includes several times when I was bleeding and once when I broke my other arm. Now, the point is not to make me sound like some sort of tough guy. But the fact is that I wanted to keep playing, so I sucked it up and went back out there. That’s what we are taught to do as Americans.

Other countries apparently don’t share this attitude and I think that’s what turns Americans off to soccer. We enjoy stories about guys like Willis Reed or Kirk Gibson who were seriously injured but played through the pain. That’s why we hate it when we see an Italian player get clipped on the ankle and roll around on the ground for five minutes like he’s going to die… only to get carried off on a stretcher, spray some icy hot on it and check back into the game.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love soccer and I’m still watching every possible minute of the World Cup. But what depresses me is that these problems with the game are overshadowing the aspects of the game that make it fun. Lots of people are asking whether soccer can ever catch on in this country on a professional level. Until we get the reffing and the diving under control, the answer is no.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I totally agree with your comments about diving; perhaps less so about the playing on while bleeding business - that sounds pretty dangerous to me and putting others' health at risk.

I don't agree with your opinion on basing a penalty decision upon the match time and scoreline. A foul is a foul, a fair tackle is a fair tackle; it's hardly justice to bend your definitions of fair play/foul play like that.