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.

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.