Stoking American Soccer

Soccer, as football is called here in America, has come a long way in the 50-plus years I have been on this planet. And just as its popularity has grown in the United States, so has the level and sophistication of the media coverage it receives.

Of course, as with all growth and progress, there has been some pain along the way. And we have certainly seen pain on the field (the collapse of the NASL, for example), as well as pain in the broadcasting booth (a competitive game being bumped by ESPN in favor of a college softball tournament, for example).

But things finally hit that nexus of American insanity last month when, during halftime of a Major League Soccer (MLS) match, former United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) player and current Fox Soccer commentator Alexi Lalas unleashed a tirade of criticism aimed directly at current USMNT players.

The Backstory
Now, to be fair, the USMNT has been struggling to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. US Soccer, which manages the USMNT, fired coach Jurgen Klinsmann late last year, after suffering two losses in the qualification process. Klinsmann was replaced by Bruce Arena, who earned considerable success as an MLS coach both before and after his previous stint at the helm of the USMNT.

Following Arena’s appointment last November, the USMNT has managed 2 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss in World Cup qualifying. It’s worth noting that the two teams which the USMNT lost to under Kilnsmann in this round of qualification, Mexico and Costa Rica, are the two most competitive sides we traditionally face at this stage. With Arena in charge, the USMNT played both of those teams again, losing one game and drawing the other. To put this marginally better performance into perspective, of the six points available from playing those two teams, Klinmann’s side earned none while Arena’s earned one. In other words, we’re sucking ever so slightly less.

Those results, compounded by underwhelming draws against Panama and Honduras, have left the USMNT in a perilous position when it comes to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. We currently sit in fourth place, thanks to goal differential, which means we would need to win a two-match playoff with either Australia or Syria to advance.

The good news is that our final two games – the first of which is tonight, at 7:00 PM, on ESPN (unless, of course, a college softball game goes into extra innings) – are against the two weakest teams: Panama, who we previously drew with, and Trinidad & Tobago, who we previously beat. And since Panama currently sit in third place, which is a direct qualification spot that doesn’t involve an additional two-game playoff, getting the full three points from a win in that game is critical.

The Double-Standard
Alexi Lalas has a reputation for speaking his mind. And he was very critical of Klinsmann from the moment the German World Cup winner was appointed to head the USMNT in 2011. While some of that criticism was fair and well-placed, much of it was not. Despite a slow start, Klinsmann put the USMNT in front of uncharacteristically tough competition as he prepared us for the 2014 World Cup, where he led the team to an impressive Round of 16 exit against Belgium in extra time.

But Lalas was far from the only pundit critical of Klinsmann. In fact, there seemed to be an ugly faction in the US soccer community who felt that “foreign” coaches should not be welcomed here (perhaps reflecting a microcosm of the xenophobia that propelled El Trumpo into office). And that was compounded by the fact that Klinsmann tapped a number of dual nationals for the team, players who were born overseas to an American parent, which has become a common practice among many of the more successful European national teams.

Since Arena took over, the majority of the US soccer media have been exceedingly soft on the American coach, cutting him plenty of slack. Perhaps because he had led the USMNT to what many consider its highest achievement, a 1-0 loss in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals to Germany, who went on to lose to Brazil in the final. Personally, I consider the USMNT’s best achievement to have been in the 2009 Confederations Cup, where – under coach Bob Bradley – we lost to Brazil 3-2 in the final after beating Spain, who went on to win the World Cup the following year, 2-0 in the semifinals.

Even after our last two results – a loss to Costa Rica and a draw with Honduras, which left the USMNT’s qualification in peril – Arena and his team received only muted criticism. Had Klinsmann still been at the helm, it’s likely that the press would have been attacking him ferociously from every angle.

The Rant
All that changed last month when Lalas, seemingly out of the blue, laid into Arena and the entire USMNT in his on-air rant. He named names. And when he didn’t, he said it was because they weren’t even worthy of calling them out by name. You can see a clip of his tirade here.

Was his criticism fair? Not really. Was it over the top? Of course. But Lalas wasn’t necessarily trying to be fair. And being over the top is sort of his job as a pundit.

Here’s the thing about Lalas, though. He’s actually a smart guy, and quite astute. Many have treated this as the rambling lunacy of an angry man who, like a large swath of our nation, has come completely unhinged. I beg to differ, though. I think this was a calculated move by Lalas to anger and thereby energize the current USMNT. Given this string of lackluster performances by what is unquestionably the most talented squad we have ever fielded (which makes our recent run of results all the more frustrating) and the critical nature of our next two games, I think Lalas was willing to stick his proverbial dick in the meatgrinder in hopes of giving the USMNT something to rally around.

This, of course, is the same sort of thing that the US military and college fraternities try to achieve with practices like boot camp and hell week. They use a perceived threat, which is typically a well-orchestrated artificial annoyance, to bring a group of people together, forming the bonds you only get when confronted by an external adversary. Lalas is the drill sergeant, the pledge master, and he just got in the face of everyone on the USMNT, creating an external adversary that will hopefully draw the team together in time to win their final two games. And for that, I thank him.

We won’t know if Lalas’ rant was effective until we play the final two games of our qualification campaign, with Panama tonight and Trinidad & Tobago on October 10th. And we may never know the extent of the damage it has done to Lalas’ relationship with the USMNT players, coach Arena, and US soccer in general. But the one thing that is already clear is that Lalas approaches his role as a commentator the way he approached his role as a USMNT defender: with passion, tenacity, and a commitment to victory at any cost.

Dear Donny: An Open Letter to El Trumpo

Dear Donny:

Remember how you said you wanted to make America great again? Well, that’s exactly what these kneeling athletes are doing. Like you, they are trying to make America great again. They are calling attention to what they feel are some of the shortcomings of our nation, areas in which can and should improve. Specifically, they are understandably alarmed by the seemingly endless string of police shooting of unarmed black men across America, and the incredible absence of justice on the behalf of these victims, as well as the overall racial injustice and inequity that has plagued our society for far too long.

Now is that disrespectful to our nation and its symbols? Is it any more disrespectful then you saying that America is no longer great, a claim on which you based your entire campaign?

Is it any more disrespectful than when you falsely claimed that the President of the United States – your predecessor, a man who won the popular vote, twice (the first to do so since FDR) – wasn’t even born in America (like two of your three wives), despite indisputable evidence that proved he was indeed born here?

Is it anymore disrespectful than claiming that neo-Nazis and the KKK, people who proudly denounce most of the ideals our nation holds sacred, are on equal footing with those Americans who showed the courage to defend those ideals?

Is it anymore disrespectful than claiming that a decorated war hero, who was tortured after his plane was shot down during battle, defending America’s freedoms in a war that you dodged, claiming that (despite being active in sports) you suddenly had “bone spurs” (a condition which, miraculously, “heeled” itself as soon as the war ended)?

And what about disrespecting the Presidency by spouting endless lies, especially the really sad ones that everyone knows aren’t true? Isn’t that disrespecting America in a far more intentional and impactful way than a handful of protesters silently taking a knee in a league you claim doesn’t have much viewership anyway?

I never understood the blind loyalty that people like you have to our nation and its symbols, until I realized that it’s neither loyalty nor blind. You are the first to bitch, moan, and protest whenever there’s something about America you don’t like. You know, like that time you tweeted that the President shouldn’t be talking about football when “our country has far bigger problems!” But when someone questions the things about America that you happen to like, then you immediately hide behind the flag and pretend that they don’t love our country, that they are disrespecting it, because they happen to be raising a concern you don’t share. That’s how cowards like you operate. You act like everything that comes out of your mouth is the only thing that matters, and whenever anyone questions you or dares to disagree with you, you cry out that they are either espousing fake news or claim that they don’t really love America.

You are the worst kind of hypocrite, Donny. Whenever an American says something about our country that you don’t like, you say shit like, “America, love it or leave it.” Yet you think it’s perfectly acceptable to criticize the country when there’s something about America that you personally don’t like, such as same-sex marriage, reasonably affordable healthcare, or high-placed government officials who use private emails while in office. Oh, wait, strike that last one.

Rather than say “love it or leave it,” why not simply try to change it, try to improve it? That’s all that these protesters are trying to do. And I’m guessing that’s what drove you to run for president, as opposed to your child-like need for attention. After all, if you didn’t like the things that were happening in this country, like these athletes who took a knee, you could have packed up trophy wife #3 along with the rest of your mildly retarded clan and fled to Nambia. You know, love it or leave it, eh?

Where would our nation be if we Americans didn’t protest against the injustices of the world, including right here at home? That’s what has made this country so great. Not a cheap cap with a slogan that did well with focus groups in rural Alabama. Speaking out against injustice is more American than apple pie. In fact, it’s our patriotic duty as Americans to tackle society’s wrongs.

And why are you so upset at people taking a knee during the national anthem? After all, that song, and our flag, are merely symbols of who we are, and how we conduct ourselves. Both were adopted long after ideals like liberty and justice for all. And isn’t that what our flag and anthem represent, things like the right to free speech and equal justice regardless of the color of one’s skin?

Since you are always quick to threaten to sue or imprison those who disagree with you, I assume you agree that our flag stands for the the rule of law. If so, then why are you disrespecting it by suggesting that these protesters be punished for taking a knee? After all, a smart guy like you must know that the United States Supreme Court ruled that Americans do not have to stand and salute the flag (West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette). Does this mean you don’t believe in the rule of law either?

Ask yourself this: what’s more important, the national anthem or the right to free speech? If you say that national anthem, not only would you make a better North Korean (where worship of national symbols is compulsory) than an American (where, as previously noted, worship of national symbols has been deemed voluntary by the Supreme Court), but you are also betraying your ignorance. The anthem represents free speech, so clearly what the symbol represents is more sacred than the symbol itself.

If you could be honest with yourself for a moment (I know it’s scary, after seven decades of incessant lies, but try to be brave for once in your life), do you think that the real reason you are upset with these people is because they have different views than you? Views that are hard to address, even for a competent leader, let alone someone like you? Or maybe it’s because you are still sore about the NFL giving you the cold shoulder all those years ago?

The truth is that America was founded on protests. Historically, we have always been a people who have rebelled against loudmouth leaders telling us what we can and cannot do. Hell, you can trace it all the way back to the Pilgrims and the Boston Tea Party. Though, I suppose if you were around then (come on, buddy, you’re not quite that old), you would surely have told the King to lock them sons of bitches up.

But let me stop right here, though. I’m sure you haven’t made it this far through the letter – not even if it was burrito night in the West Wing, leaving you with plenty of time on the toilet and little else to do. After all, I know you aren’t a big reader (all those words, and so few boobies!) and have the attention span of a 4 year-old meth head.

The bottom line is that you aren’t going to listen to a word I have said. Just like you won’t listen to the protesters (well, except for those “fine people” marching alongside the local Hitler Youth in West Virginia). I’m sure that by the time you wandered into the second paragraph of this letter, you had already dismissed me as an enemy of the state.

However, on the off chance that you did make it this far (perhaps you have run out of toilet paper and even the Secret Service are pretending they can’t hear you), let me leave you with this thought. If you really are so concerned with whether or not people respect our flag and anthem, then maybe you should focus on giving them more reasons to respect these symbols…and our nation as a whole.

You may stand during the national anthem and salute our flag, but if you do not honor and support the principles and ideals they represent, then you are disrespecting those symbols – and this country – far more than any of these protesters. And it has become painfully clear that you do not, in fact, support the principles and ideals our flag and anthem represent, including the freedom of speech, the rule of law, and justice for all. In fact, you seem to be more interested in the symbols of America than the principles and ideals they represent, which makes you the worst kind of American – a false patriot.

Disrespectfully Yours,

A Kneeling Patriot

Leicester City: The Most Remarkable Sports Story

If you are a football (soccer) fan, then you already know the story. But I wanted to share it with everyone else, whether you are a fan of some other sport or simply enjoy a good David-vs.-Goliath Little-Engine-That-Could Cinderella story.

In this day and age, it’s hard to find truly feel-good sports stories. Sports have become big business – huge-business. And it’s easy for fans to forget about things like passion, effort, and hope. But dreams still do come true.

My apologies for this being a little long, but it’s not necessarily a simple story, especially for those unfamiliar with the English Premier League. But I guarantee that it’s the best sports story involving Richard III you will ever read.

EPLogoA Little Background
The English Premier League is both the richest and most-watched national soccer league in the world. Top players from around the world flock to play for the league’s 20 teams. It generates $2.5 billion in TV revenue annually and is watched weekly by up to 4.7 billion people around the world.

The Premier League season runs from August through May, with each team playing a total of 38 matches – facing each opponent twice (home and away). The team with the best record (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss) at the end of the season wins the league, which includes a sizeable financial incentive in addition to all the glory. And the top six teams earn a chance to play in the very lucrative Pan-European leagues (Champions and Europa) the following season.

The bottom three teams are relegated, forced to play in the second division the following year, which is as hard on the revenue as it is on the ego. Imagine if the worst three Major League Baseball teams were forced to play in the minor leagues the following season (with the top three minor league teams earning promotion to the first division).

The Unlikeliest Title Contenders
Founded in 1884, Leicester City is the team that currently sits in first place in the Premier League, with a seven-point lead and just five games left in the season. This is remarkable for a number of reasons:

  • In the past 25 years, only two teams outside the big four (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, & Manchester United) have won the league, and Leicester City certainly wasn’t one of them (the only time they’ve finished in the Top Three was back in 1929).
  • In fact, last season was Leicester City’s first in the Premier League since 2003.
  • Seven years ago, Leicester City were all the way down in the third division.
  • At this point last season, Leicester City were sitting in last place and it looked like they’d be relegated back down to the second division (they ended up finishing in 14th place, just six points above relegation).
  • Leicester City’s best player, Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, left the team at the end of last season, and the players who were then brought in during the off-season to strengthen the squad were all relative unknowns.
  • In fact, Leicester City spent less than $38.7 million signing new players for this season. The team in second place right now spent more than $70 million. And the teams who have won the last few Premier League titles have spent more than that for a single player.
  • At the start of this season, the odds-makers predicted Leicester City’s chances of winning the Premier League were 5,000 to 1. In fact, most people expected them to be relegated back down to the second division at the end of this season.

Since no American sport has promotion/relegation, and there isn’t the same level of economic disparity between teams in our top sports leagues, I’ve struggled to find an analogy that speaks to the non-soccer fan. Maybe if the Toledo Mud Hens were somehow promoted to Major League Baseball and beat the Yankees in the World Series, that might be comparable. Though instead of the Toledo Mud Hens, it’s more like the Bad News Bears.

LClogoHow Could This Happen?
So how did this poor little team from the English Midlands manage to lift itself from 14th place last season and find itself on the verge of winning the Premier League this season? How do you beat 5,000-1 odds?

Leicester City didn’t bring in any big-name players. Their team doesn’t have any of the big-name superstars you might recognize. No, their team is comprised of rejects from other teams – passed over for being not good enough – and players plucked from relative obscurity in other leagues and lower divisions. Most of them weren’t even considered good enough to play for their country’s national team (until now, it seems).

For example, one of Leicester City’s stars this season, English striker Jamie Vardy, was working in a factory a few years ago and only played semi-professional soccer. Another standout, French midfielder N’Golo Kanté, was playing in the third division in France. And Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, who is favored to be named the Premier League’s Player of the Year this season, was wallowing in the French fourth division.

Leicester City did get a new coach at the start of the season: Italian Claudio Ranieri. But he’s far from a proven winner. In fact, he’s never won a top-flight title. And the journeyman has been sacked so many times that he’s managed 16 different teams in his 30-year career. When he was signed by Leicester City, his instructions were to avoid relegation – expectations that seemed daunting at the time – not to win the title.

The Ghost Of Richard III
Which leaves us with only one possible explanation, and it’s one favored by many in Leicester, the most diverse city in England outside of London. In 2012, archeologists from Leicester University dug up a parking lot in the city to unearth the remains of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”), who was killed in battle near there back in 1485.

In March 2015, the remains of King Richard III were ceremonially reburied in a local Leicester church. At that point in the season, Leicester City had 4 wins, 7 draws, and 18 losses – sitting in last place in the league. After the reburial of Richard III, however, they went on to win 7, draw 1, and lose 1 to avoid relegation that season.

And they haven’t stopped winning ever since. Of the 42 games since Richard III was laid to rest, Leicester City has enjoyed 28 wins, 10 draws, and 4 losses. And they are five games away from winning their first ever Premier League title.

It’s Not Too Late To Tune In
On Sunday morning, you can watch Leicester City as they face West Ham, a London team that currently sits in sixth place and are fighting to secure one of the coveted berths in the Pan-European leagues next season. To find the times and channels for this and the rest of Leicester City’s games, you can check Fox Soccer’s weekly online schedule.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I follow Arsenal in the Premier League. The team led the league at the Christmas break, only to do what Arsenal usually do…which is fall apart towards the very end. They currently sit in third place, with the hope of winning the title now as remote as Leicester City’s was at the start of the season. However, I do take a little comfort in knowing that Arsenal handed Leicester City two of its three losses thus far this season.]

The Jingos of Major League Soccer

MLSup14This Sunday will feature the 19th MLS Cup, which is Major League Soccer’s (MLS) version of the season-end championship game. The New England Revolution, who finished in fifth-place overall, will face the team who finished second, the LA Galaxy, who eliminated the team that topped the table, the Seattle Sounders, in the playoffs.

In most soccer (football) leagues, the team with the best record over the course of the season is crowned the champion. In MLS, that team is awarded the Supporters Shield, a largely secondary honor. Which leaves one wondering why the team that performed the best throughout the season doesn’t receive all the glory? Why is there a perceived need for post-season play?

MLSogoEverybody’s A Winner In MLS
Part of the reason has to do with American culture. Most of our sports have a post-season, leading up to a championship game (or games). Apparently being consistently the best isn’t as important to American audiences. You simply need to be the best once, on a specific day.

Of course, the real reason behind post-season play is the money. More fans will tune-in to see presumably the best of the best compete. It’s a chance to sell more ad space and at higher rates, just as it is a chance to sell more game tickets and at higher prices.

Though MLS has an additional reason for its post-season play. Unlike most other soccer leagues, it doesn’t have relegation and promotion. In other words, the teams who performed the worst in a particular season do not get sent down to a second-tier league for the following season, with the best teams from that second-tier league getting promoted to replace them.

One of the benefits of relegation is that it ensures that the games played by teams no longer vying for the title – those in the bottom half of the standings – remain meaningful through until the end of the season. These teams may no longer be in the running for the title, or even post-season play, but theoretically their fans will remain interested because they are still battling for something: to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

In an effort to keep the fans of all but the worst MLS teams engaged through to the end of the season without the benefit of relegation, the league’s 10 best teams get to compete in post-season play for the MLS Cup. And that’s where things get really silly, because it’s actually harder not to qualify for this post-season knockout tournament than it is to qualify. The league only has 19 teams, so the majority of them get to advance, including one club that had 14 wins and 13 losses this season – hardly a record worthy of a post-season berth. Next season, when the league expands to 20 teams, the plan is to have 12 qualify for post-season play, creating a likely scenario in which teams with losing records make the playoffs.

The MLS “Right or Wrong” Mindset
I can overlook the unfortunate fact that the MLS Cup dilutes the importance of regular season play by allowing the majority of teams to participate in a post-season competition that is viewed as the ultimate prize. Without relegation, it’s understandable.

What I find harder to stomach is the delusional, jingoistic fervor of so many MLS fans (and even a few league officials) that clouds the league’s genuine improvements on the field with a sickening, fecal stench. Like some neo-nationalist ideologue on Fox News, they adamantly argue that MLS is one of the best leagues in the world. And anyone who dares to question let alone dispute that assertion is viewed as a traitor by them, branded a “Euro snob” or simply accused of not being a “real” or “true” fan.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I will say that I am indeed an American, and I have been playing soccer since the early 70s. I have, on occasion, coached, refereed, and even written about the game. And I recently started playing regularly again (albeit far more slowly). Yes, I grew up watching European soccer on TV. But I also became a fan of the NASL, back when that league was the top tier in America.

I tried to follow MLS when it first launched but, as a soccer fan, I found the product utterly unwatchable. Since returning from South Africa in 2010, I gave the league another look and have been watching it more regularly. I even bought a partial season ticket plan for my nearest club. MLS has vastly improved since its inception. And while it is more entertaining, it’s still nowhere near the level of Europe’s top leagues (England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, for example) in terms of the quality.

Also, let me be clear that this criticism certainly doesn’t apply to all MLS fans. The league has some amazing fans. In fact, I’d categorize Portland’s fans as among the best in the world.

US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. (image source: ussoccer.com).

But too many MLS fans consider it heresy to question the quality of the league. And their brazenly chauvinistic accusations and outright contempt made headlines when US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann dared to offer an honest assessment of the league earlier this year, encouraging America’s best players to strive for Europe’s leagues because they are more competitive than MLS. Klinsmann has been tasked with developing America’s best talent to compete with the best the world has to offer, and the best the world has to offer play primarily in the top European leagues – not MLS.

Many MLS fans don’t want to hear any of this. Again, like a Fox News pundit, they simply ignore any facts that don’t support their ideological conclusion. In fact, if you ask these fans for evidence as to why MLS is such a great league, the answer I always get is because it’s one of the most “competitive” leagues in the world. But is there any truth to that claim? And does being competitive have anything to do with being among the best?

Competitive Against Who?
Unfortunately for these myopic MLS supporters, the claim that the league is “competitive” is a fallacy. The teams in MLS are not competitive with the teams in other leagues. They may be competitive amongst themselves, but that’s rather meaningless. It’s like saying Hyundai produces the best cars in the world simply because all of their models are of similar quality. The real test is how their cars perform against those made by other manufacturers, just as the real test of MLS is how its clubs fare against those from other leagues.

CClogoAnd there is sufficient evidence that MLS does poorly, and consistently poorly, when faced with teams from other leagues in North America, let alone against those in the best leagues in the world. Friendlies are largely meaningless, since they’re not competitive fixtures. There’s no incentive to win and most sides field an experimental squad instead of their first team. So the best test of how MLS clubs compare to those in other leagues is the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), a tournament in which the best club teams from each league in North America compete to be crowned regional champions.

However, American clubs have consistently failed to perform well in this competition. Soon after MLS was formed, its clubs had a good showing (when the tournament was still called the Champions Cup) with the LA Galaxy finishing second in 1997, winning it in 2000, and DC United taking the title in 1998. But since then, though, an MLS clubs have not fared well, with the lone exception of Real Salt Lake finishing second in 2011.

In fact, if you look at the 17 CCL tournaments in which MLS clubs have competed, they’ve only won two championships – less than 12 percent. Of the 34 opportunities to play in the final, MLS clubs have only shown up four times – also less than 12 percent. And even if you look at who made the 68 semi-final berths in the MLS era, which is something a “good” let alone “great” league ought to be able to achieve on a consistent basis, its teams only account for 26 percent of them.

If you look at the results of this regional competition, the clubs in Mexico are by far better than those in MLS (despite having the same number of seeded teams). And no Mexican fan would dream of comparing their league to the top ones in Europe. In fact, if you look at CCL performance, MLS is more on par with the Costa Rican league than those in Europe.

Since the creation of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2000, no MLS team has won the CCL, so they haven’t earned an opportunity to compete against the best teams from each of the other regional confederations. However, the CCL winners – teams proven to be better than the best in MLS that season – have never made it to the finals of the Club World Cup. In the 10 competitions to date, the best the CCL champions have been able to achieve is three third-place finishes and three fourth-place finishes. Which is proof that even these clubs (from the Mexican and Costa Rican leagues) aren’t as competitive as those from Europe and South America.

Don’t Bury Your Head – or Talent – in the Sand
Jurgen Klinsmann is right, in that American players need to challenge themselves by playing against the best players in the world – the vast majority of whom play in Europe’s top leagues. In the same way, MLS needs to stop comparing its clubs with one another and focus instead on how they perform against clubs from other leagues. That kind of open, honest assessment is the only way the game will move forward in this country.

To claim MLS is great because its teams are so competitive with one another, meaning no one is really any better or worse than anyone else (the league was designed that way, so that no one team can ever dominate), is like claiming that a boxing match between two armless men is competitive. Technically they are competitive with one another, just like Hyundai’s cars. But neither boxer would fare well against other title contenders. Nor would the bout between the armless duo make for very good entertainment, at least not for a boxing fan. Just as MLS, while vastly improved from its inaugural season, is still well short of the mark when it comes to competing with the world’s top leagues.

 

 

Understanding Soccer’s Hand Ball Rule

Understanding The Hand Ball Rule
Whether you call the game soccer or football, the rules are the same. Well, technically they are not rules but rather the “Laws of the Game” published by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.

One of the unique aspects of soccer, though, is that it’s such a simple game that few people ever bother to read FIFA’s Laws of the Game. And, in most cases, you don’t really need to unless you are a ref. Or a coach. Or a player. Or a TV commentator. Or a journalist. Or a fan.

The Rule Everyone Thinks They Understand
FIFAlotgWhile experts and novices alike agree that the game’s most confusing “rule” is when a player is – and isn’t – offside, the ugly truth is that the greatest confusion surrounds the one rule that everyone thinks they understand: handling the ball, or the hand ball rule. Incidentally, I opt to call it the “hand ball” rule instead of “handball” simply to avoid confusion with the sport of handball.

FIFA’s 140-page Laws of the Game addresses the rule on Page 36, where it is listed as the 10th and final offense meriting a direct kick (just after spitting on an opponent). And though it references the rule elsewhere, FIFA dedicates only four words (not including a caveat about goalkeepers) to describe what warrants a hand ball violation: “handles the ball deliberately.”

Simple and straightforward, right? One would think so. But all too often a quarter of that rule is either forgotten or ignored – even by people who really should know better.

The key word here is “deliberately,” because that’s where people tend to get confused. In fact, during Fox Soccer’s recent coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the network’s commentators repeatedly and bizarrely claimed that CONCACAF, the governing body of soccer in North American and one of the six such regional confederations that comprise FIFA, had somehow modified the rule by adding the term “deliberate.” At times the Fox crew went as far as to describe it as a “rule change,” when in reality the officials at CONCACAF did nothing more than clarify the existing rule, reminding referees, coaches, players, fans, and the media (including the Fox commentators) that – as the rule has always stated – for there to be a hand ball infraction, the contact had to be deliberate.

The fact of the matter is the rules haven’t changed a bit. According to the Laws of the Game, there is absolutely nothing illegal about the ball coming into contact with a player’s arm or hand. It’s only when the player deliberately creates that contact or uses unintentional contact in a deliberate attempt to control or manipulate the movement of the ball.

The notion that you can’t touch the ball with your hands is true. The confusion lies in the fact that people assume this also means that the ball can’t touch your hands. That, however, is not an offense. You will not find anything in the Laws of the Game about the ball hitting a player’s hand or arm.

It’s A Rookie Mistake
MaradonaHOGIndeed, this is an easy mistake for those unfamiliar with the game. The one thing they think they know about soccer is that you can’t touch the ball with your hands. So I’m not surprised that, when watching youth soccer games here in New York City, I often encounter confusion among parents who are discovering the game through their children.

During one such match, a player tried to kick the ball up the touchline (that’s the sideline) and booted it – at point-blank range – into the arm of an opponent who was simply standing there. If the kid had time to react, to get out of the way, he surely would have. But he had no choice, and he certainly had no choice about where the ball hit his body.

One of the father’s turned to me, in a full-on rage, livid that the ref failed to call a hand ball. I knew that he was seeking my sympathy and support. And while I was able to overlook the fact that this was a youth game, that the incident occurred along the sideline near the middle of the field and therefore posed little threat to either team, and that his team earned a throw-in to retain possession, I just couldn’t overlook his ignorance of the game’s most basic rule. Yes, folks, I decided to make it a learning moment.

I looked calmly into the man’s eyes and told him that there is nothing in the rules that says the ball cannot touch a players hand or arm. And that is absolutely true. As you can imagine, though, he failed to embrace the truth, and opted instead to launch into a tirade of obscenities about how I knew nothing about this game that he had recently discovered.

And A Veteran Mistake
DellaTwellaLike I said, I understand this sort of reaction from people new to the game. But I’m far less tolerant when people who know the game – referees, coaches, players, fans, and the media – fail to understand the rule. This is particularly true for referees, as it is their job to know the rules inside and out. And while I understand the extreme difficulty in determining whether or not contact was deliberate, especially given the deliberately deceptive behavior of many of today’s players, they still should be aware that “deliberate” is the key qualifier in determining an infraction.

But the most frustrating failures come from the media, especially television commentators. Not just because it’s also part of their job to know and understand the rules, but because they ultimately shape the understanding of the game – and its rules – for so many others.

ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, a former professional player, is undoubtedly one of the most egregious offenders. And there appears to be a clear correlation between his failure to understand the rule and the confidence with which he mistakenly enforces it from the broadcast booth. And, as noted earlier, Fox’s otherwise savvy Gold Cup crew displayed a clear and consistent inability to grasp the rule throughout their coverage of the tournament – despite having a professional ref on-call to clarify on-field rulings. As soccer fan, it was remarkably embarrassing.

I do, however, have to offer some latitude to coaches, players, and fans. After all, they tend to have a very skewed view of the game, assuming the absolute guilt of their opponents and the unquestionable innocence of their team. For many of them, any such contact by an opponent is automatically deemed deliberate. So it’s not always a question of ignorance but rather bias that shapes their interpretation of the hand ball rule.

A Classic Case Study
ZappedLast season there was an incident in very popular match between the Spanish club FC Barcelona and the Italian club AC Milan. It was an important game for both teams, though Barcelona – considered by many to be the best in the world – was expected to win it easily.

In the 56th minute, with the score was still 0-0, Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo took a shot that sailed towards a Barcelona player, Jordi Alba, who raised and extended his arms away from his body to effectively block the passage of the ball. Doing so, as opposed to simply lifting his arms to his chest to minimize the impact of the ball against his body (which in and of itself is a contentious issue that I’ll address later), demonstrated what can clearly be viewed as a deliberate effort to manipulate the path of the ball path. Therefore the official should have blown the whistle and awarded a penalty for the violation of the hand ball rule.

But it happened so fast that it must have been difficult for the ref to tell if there was intent. In fact, watching it on TV, I assumed that it was unintentional until I saw the slow-motion replay from a few different angles. Even then, one could argue that Alba was merely protecting himself while trying to turn away from the shot, and that turning motion is what brought his arms out into the path of the ball. I’ve included a video clip of the incident at the end of this post, so you can see for yourself.

The funny thing is, that’s not even what caused the controversy. No one complained about the ball striking Alba’s arms. It was what happened after the ball bounced off the Barca player’s arms that raised a ruckus.

The ball, still travelling at a high velocity, ricocheted into the arm of a Milan player who was standing next to him. That player, Milan’s Christian Zapata, was also turning away from the shot, presumably to avoid being hit it. In doing so, he also raised his arms above his head, in an effort to keep them from contacting the ball should he get struck by it (since, as this article illustrates, so many people mistake such contact as a violation of the rules).

Zapata had no way of seeing the path the ball was travelling, or the ricochet off of the Barca player next to him. And even if he did, he would not have had time to react, whether to move his arm out of the way, or to move his arm in a deliberate attempt to handle the ball. The ball flew off Alba’s arms and slammed into one of Zapata’s arms just a few feet away. It then bounced down to the feet of one of his Milan teammates, Kevin-Prince Boateng, who hammered it past Barca’s goalkeeper to score a goal.

ZapThat made it 1-0 in favor of the Italian underdogs. Milan went on to score a second goal in the 81st minute, beautifully set-up and scored, to win the game 2-0 and upset the Spanish favorites.

Naturally, Barca fans were foolishly furious, claiming that the first goal shouldn’t have been allowed (not surprisingly, they had little to say about the second one) because it was an obvious hand ball. And plenty of commentators from Fox Soccer, including some of the former pros in the studio, agreed that it was a “clear hand ball.” But, bizarrely, they were talking about Zapata’s contact, not Alba’s.

After that first goal, my nephew – a rabid Barca fan (as if there is any other kind) – texted me, demanding that I acknowledge the infraction. I responded that it was a tough call, as Alba’s arms moved so quickly, but it was good that the ref let Milan play the advantage. Of course, that did not sit well with my nephew. You see, he completely ignored the Barca player’s legitimate hand ball and only focused on the false hand ball of his opponent.

But the fact remains that, although there was clear contact between the ball and Christian Zapata’s arm, this was not a violation of the rules. It was not an infraction. It was not a foul. Zapata’s contact was by no means deliberate. It was simply an unavoidable deflection into someone’s arm, and according the Laws of the Game, there is nothing wrong with that. The goal stood, and rightfully so.

Yet to this day, you can still find Barca fans arguing about the call. It is unclear, though, whether their argument stems from ignorance (not understanding why Zapata’s contact was not a violation) or bias (ignoring the fact that Alba’s contact was a violation) – or both.

Why “Deliberate” Matters
SuarezSaveWhether out of ignorance or bias, if you happen to be a Barca fan, you surely aren’t the type of person to let the rules of the game interfere with your insistence that the goal shouldn’t have been allowed. So think of it this way: what if the rules didn’t specify that the contact had to be deliberate handling of the ball? What would the game be like if deliberate didn’t matter?

If you remove the need for a player to deliberately manipulate the path of the ball from the rule, then the game would quickly become unwatchable. Instead of trying to put the ball into the net, players would simply focus on trying to kick it into their opponents’ arms, earning themselves a free kick, or a penalty kick, and perhaps even getting an opponent sent off.

Don’t believe me? Look at how many times players take a dive in hopes of getting a free kick, penalty kick, and perhaps an opponent sent off. Imagine if they could do that simply by flicking the ball up into another player’s arm, or blasting it at a handful of defenders from close range in hopes of making contact with one of their arms.

Why would players bother trying to beat a defense when they could so easily earn a free kick? Or, if they can get close enough to their opponent’s penalty area, earn a penalty kick, which they then would have a 70-percent chance of converting into a goal? The game would become an ugly spectacle, and the only people who would benefit are double-arm amputees, who would surely be signed as defenders out of sheer necessity.

The Legitimate Need For Clarification
As I mentioned earlier, it’s often difficult for a ref to determine, in real time, whether or not the contact was a deliberate attempt to control the ball or unintentional – incidental – contact between the ball and the player’s arm or hand. Commentators and spectators have the advantage of instant replay, with slow-motion and different angles, to help make the right decision (yet, as noted, so many still insist on making the wrong one). Refs, running around a field while trying to watch 22 players and a fast-moving ball, do not have such an advantage.

HankHandBallOne of the most challenging situations for referees is when a free kick is awarded and the defending team lines up in a wall. If I am in a wall, defending against a free kick, and I’m covering my Sepp Blatters with my hands, my intent should be quite clear to the official: I prefer to avoid the potential pain caused by badly bruised testicles. Therefore, a ball that’s kicked into the wall and strikes my hand or arm should not be deemed a “deliberate” handling of the ball. It is not an offense, according to the rules of the game. It’s what we call “unintentional.”

However, if I extend my arm out to the side or up above my head, in an “unnatural” position, it should be clear that my attempt is to handle the ball, to deliberately block the shot. In this case, the resulting “ball to arm” contact would be a violation (based on intent) and the official should deem it as such. After all, this is what prevents players in the wall from standing with their arms raised, as it is – despite their arms being stationary – a deliberate attempt to manipulate the path of the ball.

This can get even more complicated, though, especially when a player raises his arm to protect his face in such situations. Those kicks can travel as fast as 70-100 mph (yet another reason it’s difficult for refs), and you definitely don’t want to take one to the head – let alone your face. But it’s tough for a ref to determine what is a natural and reasonable attempt to protect a players face and head as opposed to the player lifting or extending his elbow – with his forearm remaining over his face – in an attempt to increase his silhouette and possibly block the shot. So FIFA should offer some guidance – for both players and refs – as to what exactly is acceptable in a wall and what risks a violation.

Another challenge refs face is determining when a player’s arm is in a natural position during the run of play. Anyone who has played the game, or even watched it, knows that arms tend to move around as players go through the various actions on the field – running, turning, jumping, kicking, heading, etc.

When a player takes a shot, for example, his arms are typically extended from the body, often with one slightly raised. And, to maintain balance while ensuring maximum thrust, these positions change – the arms move – during the process of kicking the ball and following through.

If the ball is deflected back at that player, striking him in the arm or hand, no offense should be awarded. His arm is extended, and it may even be moving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is trying to manipulate the path of the ball. The player’s arms are in a “natural position” for the action he is undertaking. And I think the game could use some clarification on this front as well.

This also applies to defenders, who often have their arms out for balance when running or turning. Just because a shot or cross strikes them in the arm doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a hand ball. Often times players won’t have time to move their arm out of the way when an opponent strikes a shot, so that shouldn’t be deemed a foul because it’s also a case of the ball hitting the arm – not the other way around. And when a player clearly tries to move his arm out of the path of the ball yet is still struck by it, referees should not deem that an offense either.

Another Case Study
CGCIn fact, such an incident occurred in the Gold Cup final. Landon Donovan was crossing the ball from the right flank and the Panamanian defender swung his arms back behind himself, knowing the ball was coming at him and not wanting to risk any ball-to-arm contact that might be deemed a violation. What he didn’t know – and had no way of knowing – was that Donovan bent the cross behind him – and right into one of his arms.

Donovan and a few other players quickly appealed for a hand ball. This is understandable, given the competitive nature of the game. But the Fox Soccer commentators, who – like me – had the benefit of watching the contact in slow-motion and from various angles, also mistakenly suggested it was a violation of the hand ball rule. If anything, they – with their referee pundit – should have used this as an example to help viewers better understand the rule, as opposed to claiming it was ambiguous.

The ref, however, got it right. He saw no violation. He recognized that the contact was not deliberate and let the game play on.

Hand-To-Ball or Ball-To-Hand?
Sometimes a player’s intentions are obvious. Maradona’s hand ball goal against England in the World Cup, Henry’s handball to set up his World Cup qualifier goal against Ireland, and Suarez’s goal save in against Ghana in the World Cup – all examples I’ve pictured here.

But in many cases determining intent can be tricky. An easy way to to look at is by simplifying things into hand-to-ball contact (a violation) and ball-to-hand contact (not a violation). What’s the difference, you ask? Well, to borrow something from porn, it’s as significant as the difference between ass-to-mouth (unsanitary) and mouth-to-ass (sanitary).

In soccer, the difference lies in whether the player has moved his arm or hand towards the path of the ball. Again, that’s a lot easier to determine with video replay than it is on the field, surrounded by other players and on the run, as refs must do.

In most cases (though there are exceptions, such as when a player is falling forward…or running, turning, or even trying to get out of the ball’s way), movement of the arm or hand towards the path of the ball – where they think the ball is going – indicates a deliberate intent to handle it. That’s a hand ball. Otherwise, the ball making contact with a player’s hand or arm is not a violation of the Laws of the Game.