Reassessing Sportsmanship

So this is probably the weirdest goal you’ll see in (nearly) top-flight soccer this year (video* via).

You’re seeing that right – one team basically gets out of the way while the other walks the ball into the net, tying the game at 1-1. What the hell was going on? Sportsmanship, or so it’s being sold. I’m more than a bit confused.

But first some background, both personal and contextual.

You know how sometimes you see publishing or distribution deals that give the US rights to one company and another firm gets the rights for “rest of the world”? I’m kind of that way with soccer loyalties. Here in the US my team is DC United. I’ve followed them since MLS started in 1997, from early domination to later doldrums and everything in between. For the rest of the world, so to speak, my team is Leeds United.

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They’re currently toiling in the second tier in England (which is called the Championship and is right above the third-tier league called . . . League One – yes, it’s confusing). Leeds was peaking when I started following soccer closely in the 1990s and something about them attracted me. They’ve since overspent and plummeted down the ranks in England, going so far as the aforementioned League One before settling into a fairly consistent pattern of disappointment in the Championship.

Which brings us to this season. With a new manager, the enigmatic Marcelo Biesla, Leeds has been in the thick of the promotion race from the jump. The top two teams in the Championship automatically move up to the Premier League the next season, while the next four (third to sixth places) go into a playoff to determine the third promoted team. Leeds has been solidly within the six for most of the season, and had some hopes of snagging one of the top two spots, but some recent bad performances basically ruled that out.

So it was that they hosted Aston Villa on Sunday. Villa is also among the six, so the game still had some bite to it. Which is how this happened.

Essentially, with a Villa player down apparently injured around midfield, the Leeds players kept playing. For years the “sporting” thing to do was for one team to play the ball out so the injured player could be treated, but more recently it’s been made clear that it’s the referee’s job to stop play. As we tell kids at the lowest level of little league anything – you play to the whistle. Villa took offense and a brouhaha erupted (complete with a pretty bad dive by Leeds forward Patrick Bamford).

So, Bielsa had his team lay down so Villa could score the equalizer. What made it more farcical was that Leeds defender Pontus Jansson either didn’t get the memo or disagreed with the boss, making an attempt to tackle the ball away. The game ended 1-1, keeping Villa in position for the playoff while finally extinguishing any remote chance (it was very very remote) of scraping back into the top two and earning automatic promotion.

Bielsa’s gotten his fair share of praise for this as an example of good sportsmanship. Although Alexi Lalas lays the blame at the clumsy feet of the players:

Naturally, others suggest that there was nothing really to lose, since Leeds had no real chance of getting second place anyway, or that Bielsa is still trying to rebuild his image after a “spying” scandal earlier in the season. Regardless, the end result is the same – the team essentially forfeited a win and sacrificed two points in the standings to affirm an unwritten rule that maybe shouldn’t be honored anymore.

This all reminds me of something I wrote about earlier this year in the wake of the Rams/Saints fiasco before the Super Bowl – in 1999 Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger demanded that his team replay a FA Cup match against a lower division team after Arsenal had scored a goal in a moment of confusion following a similar incident – the other team played the ball out to allow an injured player to get treatment, then an Arsenal substitute pounced on the ensuing throw in. I’ve always viewed that as a great example of sportsmanship where Wenger really put something on the line – had Arsenal lost the replay they would have been out of the tournament.

But, truth be told, I’d don’t care about Arsenal’s success. Leeds, on the other hand, I care about, so I’m having to rethink my ideas on sportsmanship in these situations. I mean, given the point of the season where it occurred it didn’t matter a whole lot, so in such situations there good reason to be magnanimous. Plus, the laws of the game (soccer has laws, not rules, you understand) could be clearer, as it says that the ball is out of play only when it’s actually crossed a boundary or “play has been stopped by the referee.” But, obviously if a team kicks the ball out intentionally that’s still out of play, so where does that get you?

On the other hand, unspoken rules – “gentleman’s agreements” – are supremely flimsy. I’m generally of the opinion that a right without a remedy, without a means of enforcement, is no right at all and that same’s true for an unwritten rule in sports. Leeds’ players did nothing wrong by playing on when the ref didn’t stop the game. That’s his job, not theirs. It’s the same thing as a player correcting a ref’s bad call – it’s the ref’s job to get things right, not the player’s to atone for his sins. In other words, it’s above and beyond the call to play the game with complete honesty. And, honestly, does anybody believe that if the same situation happened in the playoff final, with promotion at stake, that Bielsa would have done the same thing?

I don’t think so. I hope he wouldn’t. There’s a world of difference between cheating and taking advantage of an opponent’s expectations. All may be fair in love and war, but as the old saying goes, soccer is more important than that!

* Apologies for the lack of embedded video. Couldn’t figure out how to get Deadspin’s player to work on the blog.

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