Will the Other Shoe Drop?

When Russia invaded Ukraine a few weeks ago, the world responded pretty quickly to isolate Russia and exclude Russians around the world from various things. A major Russian conductor was dropped for concerts at Carnegie Hall because of his close ties to Putin and unwillingness to criticize the invasion (a similar result came with an famed opera singer a little while later). Bars stopped serving Russian vodka. Hell, even rapacious companies like BP decided that being in business with Russia was a no-go.

Soccer was one of the first parts of the sporting world to respond. UEFA, the European federation, announced that it was moving the Champions League final, the capstone of its most important club competition, from St. Petersburg to Paris. In the wake of that, several countries – notably Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic – announced they would not play Russia under any condition. That was important, as they were all involved with Russia in the same playoff round of World Cup qualifying and so were, potentially, forfeiting a chance to make this year’s World Cup Finals (other federations with less skin in the game, including the US Soccer Federation, made similar statements). Eventually, FIFA stepped in and banned Russia from further competition, leaving the Swedes, Poles, and Czechs to fight it out for World Cup berth with clean hands.

Sort of.

It was a shock, to say the least, when Qatar beat out Australia, Japan and others to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup (in the same process that awarded the 2018 World Cup to . . . Russia). The Qatari heat would require the tournament to take place in November and December, rather than in the middle of the summer. Beyond that, of course, Qatar is not a democracy and has a shady human rights record.

But specifically, the numerous new stadiums the nation needed to build for the World Cup, are killing workers at an alarming rate, up to 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and surrounding areas alone. A minimum wage for those workers only came into effect in 2021. A good idea of what laboring to build the stadiums is like can be found here. So not only are there ethical questions about the host nation for the World Cup in general, but specifically linked to the competition itself.

So what should the countries that have qualified do about it? The invasion of a sovereign nation by a neighbor, in a way that wrecks the equilibrium of modern Europe, may be sui generis. After all, the nations who initially stepped up to say that wouldn’t play Russia could find themselves in Putin’s crosshairs sooner rather than later. Lots of the other countries, including the United States, are doing everything they can to stop the war without it blowing up into World War III.

What’s gone on in Qatar isn’t that, but it isn’t good. More and more, repressive regimes are using sports to try and launder their reputations. Called “sportswashing,” it’s probably a driving force behind the fact that there are now things like a Formula 1 race in Saudi Arabia and the recent Winter Olympics (and current Paralympics) in China. Letting Qatar host the World Cup is more of the same.

But it’s very likely that they are going to host, so what to do about it? Is the reaction of the sporting world to Russia’s aggression the beginning of a new era in sports activism? Or is it so beyond the pale of the modern world that it won’t impact anything else? I wish I knew, because I struggle with what to do about the World Cup, too. I watched almost every game of the 2018 version in Russia and the Americans didn’t even qualify. If we make it this time? You bet I’ll be paying attention, but won’t feel good about it.

Let me address the elephant in the room – if global sports is going to develop a conscience about things like human rights and violating international law, won’t that standard mean excluding the United States from certain things? Maybe. People asking “what about Iraq?” have a very good point. There are differences between the two situations, but I’m not sure they make a difference. Nor is invading Iraq without cause our country’s only sin when it comes to international relations. If that means we get punished for it, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

For most of us, sports are a distraction, a fun way to spend free time and we try to keep that frame even when we’re engaging with multi-billion dollar competitions that span the globe. We want them to an escape from the regular world, from the conflicts that rage in “real” life. But they’re part of our world, in all its pain and joy, and that means inextricably entwined with world affairs.

In Praise of Gregg Berhalter

When Gregg Berhalter was announced as the head coach of the US Men’s National Team in 2018 that decision was not greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. Gregg’s managerial career consisted of a couple of non-descript years in Sweden followed by a solid run in charge of the Columbus Crew, losing MLS Cup in 2015 (at home) to the Portland Timbers. There were other big, international names that were allegedly in the mix, so this pick seemed underwhelming. It didn’t help that Gregg’s brother Jay was one of the higher ups in US Soccer at the time, leading to lazy charges of nepotism in Gregg’s hire. That Gregg had appeared 44 times for the USMT as a player, but never made the field during the World Cup where he was on the roster kind of said it all.

Gregg’s hire came in the shadow of the USMNT failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. His ultimate success will be judged solely on whether we qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar and, if we do, how well we do there. Up to this summer there hadn’t been a lot of meaningful games for Gregg to show fans what he can do at the helm. But, oh boy, has he had a very good summer.

Like everything else, the pandemic wreaked havoc with the international soccer calendar. League seasons that were suspended in early 2020 finished up later than usual that year, leading to the cancellation of major 2020 national competitions and the late start of the next club season. That season then got compressed so the delayed summer competitions could happen. So this summer has been packed solid with the Copa America and European Championships taking place on a year delay, not to mention the Olympics. And then there’s World Cup qualifying, which gets underway in September and will include schedules with three games played in two weeks (usually it’s only two).

For CONCACAF, the regional federation to which the United States and the rest of North and Central American and the Caribbean belong, its championship, the Gold Cup, was already scheduled for 2021. But the inaugural finals of the Nations League, a new tournament meant to fill in the gaps between World Cups and Gold Cups, was supposed to have taken place in 2020, but got pushed back. So, for Gregg and the USMNT this summer meant two games in the Nations League final, the Gold Cup, and then the start of World Cup qualifying, all with players who have been at it pretty much nonstop for the past year or so. Oh, and CONCACAF moved the Gold Cup back a month so as to not compete with Copa America and the Euros, pushing it into the preseason for a lot of European clubs.

Thankfully, Gregg had a plan. Step 1 – take the best team possible into the Nations League finals with the intent of winning a trophy. This would bet the core players, most of whom play in Europe. It would be the first meaningful chance to see them play together, in anticipation of a meeting with full-strength Mexico in the final. Step 2 – take a younger, mostly MLS-based team into the Gold Cup, with the intent of discovering roster depth that will help us when World Cup qualification begins, while giving the first-team guys some rest and letting them start preseason work with their club teams. Go as far as you can in the tournament, but don’t expect to win it, especially if we came up against Mexico, again. Step 3 – start World Cup qualifying with the strongest team possible and, hopefully, some momentum.

Well, as for Step 1 – this happened:

After a less than impressive semifinal win against Honduras, the US beat Mexico 3-2 in extra time to lift the first Nations League trophy. It didn’t go completely to plan – injuries kept the preferred Best 11 from playing together much – but you can’t argue with the results. Off to some vacation for most of those guys, on to the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup was never going to be beautiful. The only real holdover from the Nations League roster was midfielder Kelly Acosta. More than a dozen players had appeared less than ten times for the USMNT. The guys called in from Europe were basically trying to make moves to new clubs. How much talent did this group have?

Enough to blow through the group stage, at least. By which I mean we won all three games, even if two of them were a lot closer than you’d like them to be. Rosters were rotated, players were given chances to sink or swim. Nothing convincing but, again, the results were coming. We were probably outplayed for large parts of the quarterfinal against Jamaica and the semi against Qatar (here as guests and reigning champions of Asia), but the result in the end was the same: 1-0 to the US.

But remember, the goal here isn’t necessarily to win, but to learn. What did we learn in all those games? That New England goalkeeper Matt Turner should be in the running for the top job when qualifying starts. That defender Miles Robinson and midfielder/defender James Sands are both worthy of the qualifying roster. The defensive depth we were worried about is here and it’s pretty good. The attack not so much (Matthew Hoppe’s enthusiasm aside), but we’re top heavy with attacking talent with the first-choice team. We’ve also learned that Gregg can make great use of substitutes – keeping in mind that FIFA is keeping 5 substitutes (as opposed the usual three) until at least the next World Cup is over.

But we want to win this thing, right? Over Mexico for the second time this summer? You’re damned right we did:

It should be noted that, due to injuries and Olympic duty, Mexico was missing a few first-teamers, but they had a lot more of their “A” team on the field in the Gold Cup final than we did. We won anyway. Was is pretty? No. Was is great fun to watch? Absolutely.

I’d like to say I was a Gregg booster from the beginning, but that would be a lie. I wasn’t as down on him as some other folks, but I wasn’t thrilled. As we waded through lots of friendlies with questionable roster selections and what not I wondered if he was up to it. Now I’m ready to buy in completely. Gregg might not do it the way I want him to, but his job is to get us back to the World Cup and regain are spot on top of CONCACAF.

We’re halfway there!

Weekly Read: The Ball Is Round and The Age of Football

Does anyone really need to read more than 1500 pages about soccer? Or, in my case, listen to more than 63 hours of it? Probably not, but if you’re at all interested in the beautiful game beyond watching games, you could do worse. These two volumes – both written by journalist David Goldblatt – explore why the game developed as it has as well as the challenges facing it in the 21st century.

I should say, right at the top, that I’m going to call the game “soccer” throughout. As the history in these books points out, soccer is a derivation of “Association Football,” the actual name of the sport, and is a British phenomenon (in several quoted period sources the game is called “soccer”). It’s not just a heathen American thing – it’s a it’s-called-different-things-around-the-world thing.

The Ball Is Round is the more essential (and longer) of the two because it covers the history of the game, rather than the state of its current form (it was written about the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany). And it starts with the beginning – surveying the games of ancient cultures to try, without real success, to find the ancestor to soccer.

As an aside, let me say that one thing both of these books have going for them is their scope. They deal with the game on a global level and while Europe (and South America, to a lesser extent) command the most attention, Africa, Asia, and the unholy alliance known as CONCACAF (North and Central American and the Caribbean) are examined pretty closely.

Getting back to the history of the game, more interesting than the nitty gritty origins of the sport and the codification of its rules (sorry, “laws” – soccer is serious business) is how the game spread around the globe. Given its origins in the UK and its spread while the British Empire was at its height, you’d think it was a simple question of imperial imposition, but it really wasn’t. Indeed, large countries with close ties to the British Empire have largely rejected soccer in favor of other pastimes, including the United States, Canada, India, and Australia. What really did it was the soft power of British industry and financing, the tendrils of which reached well beyond the formal boundaries of the Empire.

Thus, in lots of places, the game arrived with expat British workers and grew from there. It’s why so many big named clubs around the world actually have British origins, including Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs. Ever wonder why AC Milan’s big rivals are Inter? It’s because Internazionale was formed in response to the closed up Britishness of AC Milan!

Another interesting part of the development of the game is how tied it was to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of more affluent working and middle classes (there’s an interesting intersection with the nascent labor movement, which was providing folks with more free time). This helps partially explain why Brazil, for example, has robust state championships based around big cities, in addition to a national league, as the big clubs grew up in cities, without a lot of development in the hinterlands.

Things get less compelling after the Second World War and the book focuses on what Goldblatt calls “industrial football.” That is, the rise of big money in the game, particularly with the increased profile of international competitions like the European Cup (now Champions League), the Copa Libertadores in South America, and, of course, the World Cup. The history is interesting, but Goldblatt slips into a style that is more a string of anecdotes than a compelling central thesis with supporting evidence. The result, as he checks in all over the globe, is a little numbing and overwhelming.

It also highlights some flaws in the book, such as some of the chapters that end with “you are there!” style descriptions of particular matches. Listening to the audiobook it was unclear whether these were taken from actual reports of the game, but it appears that they were Goldblatt’s creation. They’re fine, so far as they go, but it seems to me that writing about a soccer game is a little bit like Frank Zappa’s turn of phrase that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it just doesn’t capture the essence of what you’re writing about.

Speaking of the audiobook – the narrator of The Ball Is Round has some odd blind spots when it comes to pronunciation. My heart died a little bit every time he referred to Juventus as “Jewv” (as opposed to “Juve” – aka “you vey”). He gets some other Latin names wrong, too, just often enough for it to be an issue. Thankfully, Goldblatt himself narrates the sequel and it doesn’t have the same problem.

As for The Age of Football, it basically picks up where The Ball Is Round leaves off in terms of chronology – starting with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and ending with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rather than just updating the history, however, this book focuses more on how soccer is intertwined with other aspects of politics and economics around the world. As such, it suffers from the same checking of boxes as we go all around the world seeing the same pathologies play out over and over.

In that sense, The Age of Football is pretty depressing. It shows how the game is used by regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, for legitimacy and national unity. It shows how money had become the primary driver of the global game, with little regard for what that means in places that are left behind.

Goldblatt notes how, for example, interest in local African leagues has plummeted since the advent of satellite TV and smart phones, which allow people all over the continent to watch top leagues in Europe instead. What’s funny is that the same is true, somewhat, in the United States, where diehard fans of English or German teams don’t give Major League Soccer the time of day.

Amidst the gloomy underbelly of the modern game, there is the damned near universal nature of its allure. All those places I mentioned above where soccer didn’t take root initially are starting to come along. China, where the game’s never had much of an impact, is ramping things up. The World Cup is one of the few moments of unity the world gets, which is worth celebrating. And the game is, as they say, the beautiful one, whether it’s played in a gleaming stadium in front of a worldwide audience of billions or in a bare field in the middle of nowhere.

A Mountaineer In the Duke of York’s Shire

Back in the spring, when the first blush of the pandemic shut things down around the world, one of the “holy shit, this is serious” moments was when the sports world ground to a halt. In the United States the big deal was when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, March Madness, was cancelled outright. In Europe, soccer leagues shut down one by one across the continent.

At the time, there were serious discussions about what that meant for the 2019-2020 season that was in the home stretch. Would it be completed later, keeping in mind that the 2020-2021 season kicks off in August? Would the standings be set and stone at the time things were halted, even though the season wasn’t complete? That’s the path the French leagues took, setting final tables based on points earned per game. Would the powers that be simply declare things over, void, and disappear the entire season? That’s what the Dutch leagues did.

In England, the debate about how, and whether, to finish the season centered around Liverpool FC, which were well on their way to their first Premier League title and first top-flight championship in three decades. I was more interested in what was going to happen in the Championship, England’s second tier, where Leeds United topped the table at the time things shut down. It had been 16 years since Leeds had been in the Premier League and I’d been rooting for them to get back all that time.

Why? How does a person born and raised in West Virginia come to root for a team in Yorkshire?*

While I played soccer growing up, it wasn’t really until I was in college that I became a fan of the game. Part of that was due to the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted in the United States and all over TV. Major League Soccer was an outgrowth of that, too. But what really captured my attention was the one-game weekly broadcasts of UEFA Champions League games on a regional sports station. In the Champions League the top teams from all over Europe (each nation has its own league – even each of the UK nations have their own!) from the previous season play to crown a continental champion.

That’s where I first met Leeds United.

LUFC Logo

At the time I didn’t know anything about Leeds or the county, Yorkshire, when the city is located. What I saw was a team that appeared to be overachieving. It appeared to be doing it with young talent that was largely British or Commonwealth based (it was a little odd for a newbie to see English teams primarily made up of players from around the world – I hadn’t learned about the Bosman ruling yet). In other words, they looked like underdogs and I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs. So they won my support.

In the years since I’ve developed a little bit of an affinity for Leeds and Yorkshire. Two of my favorite bands are from Leeds, The Tangent (or at least its main man, Andy Tillison) and Kaiser Chiefs. The latter is even named after the prior club of former Leeds captain Lucas Radebe! And Yorkshire has a history as one of England’s major producers of coal, so it resonates with my West Virginia roots.

Now, at the time, I didn’t know that Leeds United had a glorious history, particularly in the mid-1960s and early 1970s  when they were one of England’s elite (around the same time progressive rock ruled the land – coincidence?). From the time I was in law school until just about the time I started my current gig in 2002, things were like that again, with the team finishing in the top five for five consecutive seasons.

Then the wheels came off. The team had made some bad financial decisions, gotten overstretched on credit, and had to sell some of its best young players. The bottom fell out and the team was relegated to the Championship and then, three seasons later, to League One (which, confusingly is England’s third tier – the equivalent to AA baseball). They bounced back to the Championship at the start of this decade, but were frustratingly underachieving, until crashing out in the promotion playoffs last year.

Which is what made the pandemic pause so nerve wracking. This season it looked like promotion was theirs to take. Would the interruption mess with the team’s chemistry? Would a compressed schedule put too much stress on Marcelo Bielsa’s thin squad? Would there even be any more games? Thankfully, the rest of the season played out and the right result ensued:

BBCLeedsHeadlineNYTLeeds

Had the pandemic not swept along, my wife and I had planned to visit England and Scotland in the spring and see Leeds play at Elland Road. We might have wound up at the game where they clinched promotion. Alas, it was not to be. At least the promotion part happened! “Marching On Together” as they say.

* I should note that I do my soccer loyalties like some people do publishing rights – for the United States and then for the rest of the world. I root for DC United in Major League Soccer. Who suck so bad right now they’re giving me all the soccer pain I can handle.

Dear US Soccer – Please Shut Up and Settle

I practice criminal law, criminal defense to be precise. I’m glad I do, because there’s a clarity of focus in it that can be a bit hazy in other legal areas. My job is to do the best for my client in court, period – whether that means an acquittal, a better sentence, or (as in my practice, for the most part) a successful result on appeal. Very very rarely are the other considerations to worry about. That the public doesn’t like the process is irrelevant – I’m trying to keep my guy out of a cage.

Civil law is different, particularly civil defense. People who get sued are often really determined to prevail on court, to prove to the world that they’re right. But part of their lawyer’s job is to suggest that winning in court is not necessarily going to solve their problem. A criminal defendant is rarely made worse off by a bold defense in court. A civil defendant, by contrast, particularly a corporation without any real personality – well, sometimes the big machine gets it right:

WinningMove

That went through my head when I read about US Soccer’s pleading last week in its ongoing litigation with the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) over equal pay. I don’t know enough about employment law to know if the arguments made in it are legally sound or have a chance of success, but I’ll assume they do. Question is, what does US Soccer think a “win” would look like at this point?

This article at SI breaks down the federation’s latest argument, which basically has two parts. The first is one familiar to anyone who has brushed up against the legal system – non fregit eum, et emit eam (aka “you broke it, you brought it”):

Stolzenbach first asserts that the fundamental flaw of the players’ legal theory is that they compare a pay system that their own labor union, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association, negotiated with the pay of players who aren’t in their bargaining unit—players on the men’s team.

To that end, U.S. Soccer stresses that courts have consistently rejected attempts by unionized employees to compare their employment terms to employees who are outside of their bargaining unit.

This is the kind of procedural argument I’d expect any lawyer to make. It appears to be the equivalent to how plea bargains are treated in criminal law – once you sign one, you’re stuck with it. Assume A and B are charged in an indictment and A decides to get a good early plea bargain. B sticks it out and, later, either gets a better deal or goes to trial and is acquitted. Can A back out of his plea? Not a chance. Courts routinely hold that so long as you weren’t misinformed, mistaken, or misled into making a guilty plea then you won’t be able to back out of it later. Whether this is a winning argument in the context of the USWNT case I don’t know, but it seems fairly standard.

The other one, though . . . yikes. It has to do with whether the job of USWNT player is “roughly equal in terms of effort, skill, and responsibility” to that of US Men’s National Team (USMNT) player. It was bad enough to point out that in terms of “responsibility” that the USWNT may not have the same earning potential as the USMNT (while eliding the fact that the USMNT choked and missed out on its last big earning opportunity – the 2018 World Cup).

From there it got worse:

Stolzenbach attempts to supplement this argument, even wading into some territory that could be described as misogynistic.

He insists that men’s players face much more demanding working conditions and thus have fundamentally different—and, by implication, harder—jobs. He contends that men’s players encounter ‘opposing fan hostility’ in road environments, particularly in Mexico and Central America, that is ‘unmatched’ by anything experienced by women’s players. Stolzenbach stresses that the women don’t play in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean when trying to qualify for tournament play. Further, Stolzenbach maintains that ‘science’ confirms there are different levels of speed and strength required for men’s and women’s players. He insists it is not a ‘sexist stereotype’ to recognize this distinction.

 

Now, if US Soccer was fighting to stay out of jail I might question this strategy, but you do what you have to do. But at the end of the day, US Soccer is going to have to continue to do business with the USWNT (and the USMNT, who have publicly supported the drive for equal pay) and, more importantly, the American public. Why on Earth would they want to denigrate about the only good thing coming out of American soccer at the moment?

Let’s recap. The women are undefeated in more than a dozen matches, just swept through the She Believes cup against quality competition, are the two-time defendant champions of the world (with two other World Cups prior), and are gearing up to try and win their fifth gold medal at this summer’s Olympics. By contrast, the men failed to qualify for the last World Cup (to be fair, so did traditional powers Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands), their furthest progression in the Cup came before the Second World War, and they’ve ceded the pole position in the region to Mexico. Oh, and the Olympics? The men haven’t qualified since 2008.

Whether those comparisons are apples to oranges or not is irrelevant. In the public eye, US Soccer has precisely one broadly loved group whom people outside of soccer fanatics care anything about – the USWNT. Building the game in the United States – at all levels, men’s and women’s – requires public support. Pissing off a large swath of the public with arguments like this – even if it’s a winner legally – is a long-term losing proposition. It’s not just my criminal law mind that thinks this is a bad play (in response to this tweet):

USSoccerTweet1

Indeed, the backlash from this filing has been swift and fierce. US Soccer eventually apologized, but the players weren’t buying it. The president of the federation resigned and, apparently, the law firm responsible was fired.

Ultimately, as to what comes next, I think Alexi Lalas has it about right:

USSoccerTweet2

This really isn’t a legal fight. It can’t be won in a courtroom. It’s only going to be won in the court of public opinion and that’s going to require some serious groveling on US Soccer’s part. So, let’s get to it, US Soccer – shut up and settle this thing already!

Please-Shut-Up-Morgan-Freeman-Picture

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.

Scarves1Crop

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.

Should Sean McVay Pull a Wenger?

Unless you were in a coma last weekend you’ve probably heard about the end of the NFC Championship game, where the Rams wound up beating the Saints on a field goal in overtime. It only got that far, largely, because of a horrible blown call by the officials near the end of the game:

Had pass interference been called on the Rams, the Saints likely could have just run out the clock or, at worst, pushed their lead to six with an easy field goal and left the Rams with little time to score a needed touchdown. Instead, the Rams tied it up, then won.

Many people are pissed about this, for good reason. This isn’t a “bad call” in the usual sense, where there’s some grey area as to whether the refs made the right call or not. The penalty in this instance was clear and unambiguous. Is there anything to be done about it? As Michael McCann over at Sports Illustrated explains, probably not. The only NFL recourse is for the commissioner to step in under authority to deal with “emergencies” and “extraordinarily unfair acts.” However, that rule explicitly exempts refereeing decisions from its scope, so there’s little hope for any kind of do over or make up. Nor are there likely to be options outside the NFL (ludicrous lawsuits like this don’t help).

However, as McCann points out, there have been examples in other sports of do overs. Those are clearly covered by the rules. One important one he didn’t mention, however, comes from the “other” football, the one they play in the rest of the world and is a little more wide ranging.

It’s February 1999 during the fifth round of the FA Cup, England’s all-comer knockout soccer competition. Arsenal, defending champions of not just the Cup but the Premier League, are playing Sheffield United, then in the First Division (now Championship). Tied 1-1 late, Sheffield’s goalkeeper kicks the ball out of play so an injured player can get treatment. A show of sportsmanship, the proper response to which is for Arsenal to then throw the ball back to the keeper when play restarts. Arsenal’s Ray Parlour tries to do just that, but recent singing Nwankwo Kanu (just on as a sub, if I remember correctly) sprints onto the ball. He passes it to a surprised Marc Overmars, who puts it into the net past a really surprised Sheffield keeper. Arsenal wins 2-1.

What happened next is what’s really relevant now. As The Guardian said way back then:

A Frenchman taught the English an extraordinary lesson in sporting etiquette last night. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal football manager, graciously offered to stage a rematch after his side won an FA Cup-tie on a controversial winning goal.

In an unprecedented move, the Football Association gratefully accepted Wenger’s offer to make Arsenal replay their fifth-round match with Sheffield United, scrubbing out the London club’s 2-1 victory yesterday in the interests of fairness.

* * *

After offering a replay, Wenger said: ‘The second goal is a controversial goal and we feel that it is not right. We have the feeling that we didn’t win the game like we want to win our games.’

So the two teams played again, with Arsenal winning (again) by a score of 2-1 (again).

Now, there are vast differences between the Arsenal situation and the Rams. For one thing, replays are baked into the FA Cup. Outside of the last couple rounds, if a game ends tied the two teams play again in a week or so. Had Arsenal not scored that controversial second goal, the fixture would have gone to replay, anyway. There’s no similar method in the NFL, which only has two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. For another, goals in soccer are precious things in the way points in American football just aren’t, so a questionable goal is a bigger deal than a single blown call.

But, finally, the Rams didn’t break any unwritten rule of sportsmanship. They played the game and let the refs enforce the rules, which is how the game is supposed to work. Teams work the officials the entire game trying to gain advantageous calls. Bad calls – close ones or just blown ones – are part of the game in a way that the Arsenal goal isn’t supposed to be.

So, no, I don’t really expect Rams coach Sean McVay to say, “hey let’s do this again,” even just the last 1:49 that remained (as McCann explains, that would raise a lot of interesting procedural questions). But wouldn’t it be cool if he did? Wouldn’t it be cool if in a land torn apart by tribalism and “us versus them” one team said “we don’t want to win the wrong way?”

Still Not Sold on VAR

The World Cup has come and gone (congrats Les Bleus!) and, along with it, the most high profile deployment to date of Video Assisted Refereeing or VAR. Regular readers know I’m not a huge fan of VAR (not quite the militant my wife has become, however), but if it’s here to stay it’s at least worth making it the best product it can be. So how did it do on its debut on the global stage?

If I’m being honest – not bad. It seemed to work fairly efficiently and corrected a good number of “wrong” calls. Not all of them, of course, which goes to one of my primary complaints with any form of review in sports – a promise of perfect that can never be realized. And it didn’t take that long. According to SoccerAmerica, 455 incidents were reviewed in 64 games, with only 20 resulting in game stoppages (of an average 80 seconds). And it managed to avoid my nightmare scenario – where team A is fouled while attacking in team B’s box but there’s no call, allowing team B to counter attack and the next stoppage is after team B scores. How does that all get sorted out? It will happen eventually. But, more often than not, the World Cup version of VAR was a good thing.

The other versions still need a lot of work.

Every week, for some reason, MLS puts together a “you be the ref” video with a controversial calls (or non-calls) involving a penalty kick, offside call, and red card.

Invariably they tend to show referees making bad decisions and, in some cases, VAR does very little to help. Witness a recent outburst by Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, which attracted support from others around the league (before all the tweets disappeared, for some reason).

A lot of this comes down to something that video review in all sports (that I’m aware of, at least) have imported from the world of my day job – standards of review.

When a court of appeals reviews a lower court decision, it doesn’t just hoover up the record and spit out an opinion. The court reviews discrete issues, each with its own rules for reviewing it. Generally speaking, if the issue is purely one of law – say, what a statute means – it’s reviewed de novo, with no deference to the lower court’s decision. On the flip side, a purely factual issue is reviewed for clear error – meaning it’s not just enough for the lower court to have been wrong, but it must be really really wrong for the higher court to do anything about it. Lots of issues fall in the middle and get reviewed for abuse of discretion, which is also pretty deferential to the lower court’s decision.

There are reasons for these in courts of law. Primarily, the thought goes that lower courts that actually sit and watch witnesses testify and such have a better chance of getting the facts right than higher courts working from a cold record. There’s some evidence that isn’t true, but it’s the accepted basis of the system right now.

VAR (and reply in American football) has adopted, basically, the clear error standard, in spite of the reasons for doing so not applying. If anything, the replay booth is in better shape than the ref watching the game live to make correct decisions. Why hamstring things so that only “really really wrong” decisions are corrected? During the World Cup commentators mentioned that the replay officials (or perhaps just the ref making the review – why do they get to judge their own work?) couldn’t even look at replays in slow motion. What’s the point of that? If we’re going to stop the game to get things right, let’s get things right!

That, largely, is what’s keeping me from more fully embracing VAR. On the one hand, it goes too far in messing with the flow of the game. On the other hand, it doesn’t go far enough, since it limits the value of the replays. The powers that be need to work that contradiction out, sooner rather than later.

Or, at the very least, MLS needs to adopt the system FIFA used for the World Cup. It’s eons better than what they do now. If we have to have VAR – and I fear we must – let’s at least make it the best it can be.

Rivalries and How They Work

The World Cup is underway and, sadly, the United States isn’t involved this time. For the first time since 1990, we failed to qualify. In the words of one commenter I saw in a forum the other day, “we shit the bed.” It’s as good a description as any.

That has led some Americans to wonder who they might root for in the tournament. I think that’s kind of silly – as I’ve written before, you can be a fan of the game, without any particular rooting interest – but whatever makes the experience more enjoyable (Volkswagen is having fun with the idea in its new commercials).

While we Americans failed to qualify, our great rivals from across the Rio Grande did, and with some ease. That’s led to some to suggest that American fans should root for Mexico in the Cup. That reached peak silliness this past weekend with this Tweet from, of all people, United States Men’s National Team legend Landon Donovan:

Putting to one side the cash-grab aspect of all this (Wells Fargo, Landon? Really?), that’s simply not how rivalries work. I personally think it’s a bridge to far to wish ill on your rivals (not a fan of the “my two favorite teams are A and whoever is playing B” shirts). Rooting against someone just seems like bad karma. Sports should involve positive motivations, not negative.

Besides, you can sit back and realize it’s good for the United States for Mexico – and the other CONCACAF teams, Costa Rica and Panama – to do well. When the region does well on the global stage it lifts all boats and we, as a men’s soccer program, desperately could use some lift right now. But that’s a far bridge from actually rooting for them to do well.

To put it in another context, as a West Virginia University fan and alum, I hope that our Big XII rivals do well in bowl games and NCAA tournaments, because it makes us look better when we do well in the conference. So, while I’m happy with Kansas winning a national championship in basketball or Oklahoma doing well in the football “playoff,” that doesn’t mean I’m actively rooting for them. That’s just a bridge too far.

But still, if you’re an American fan and you want to root for Mexico, be my guest. Just don’t make it more than it is, as Donovan tried to do in a follow-up Tweet after being called out by fellow former USMNT member Carlos Bocanegra:

 

Um, no. In the same way that rooting for WVU against Baylor doesn’t mean I wish ill on the students in Waco, not rooting for Mexico has nothing to do with the horribles the current regime is perpetrating upon immigrants and Latinos. Sports can certainly build bridges, but not ones that can bear that much weight.

So I will watch with interest as Mexico (and Costa Rica and Panama) take on the world in our absence. I’ll marvel at brilliant plays made and shake my head at missed chances and nonsense. In other words, I’ll watch their games just like I do everybody else’s.

That being said – well done to Mexico for knocking off Germany yesterday.

Cheating? Brilliant? A Little of Both

The World Cup gets underway this week. Even without the United States involved (*sniff*) I’m still looking forward to the tournament. Beyond the month-long celebration of world-class soccer, it always seems to bring some really odd stories out in the run up to the tournament. Some are amusing, some less so.

This one falls kind of in between.

Tunisia are returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 after topping their group in qualifying. That means playing a series of friendlies (soccer-talk for “exhibition”) in the weeks leading up to the Cup in order to prepare. That’s bad timing because the Tunisian players are Muslims and it’s currently Ramadan. That means not drinking or eating anything between sunrise and sunset for a month. This year, that month is May 15 to June 14.

You can see the problem. Soccer is famously taxing when it comes to physical stamina:

So playing the same at the highest level while you can’t eat or drink would be a real pain in the ass.

Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appears to have found a clever solution:

In friendly matches against Portugal then Turkey, goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appeared to feign injury at sundown, when the fast comes to an end.

As he lay on the pitch receiving medical treatment, his teammates rushed to the sidelines to drink water and snack on dates.

And it produced immediate results.

Down 2-1 to European champions Portugal, Tunisia rebounded six minutes after Hassen’s injury break by scoring an equalizer and ended the match 2-2.

Days later against Turkey, Hassen stopped play by lying on his back.

Again, his teammates ate dates and drank water provided to them by waiting coaching staff. That match also ended 2-2.

* * *

Pundits in Tunisia were quick to note the timing of the goalkeeper’s injuries in the second half of both matches – in the 58th and 47th minutes of play respectively.

This coincided with the time of sunset, which is when Iftar – the breaking of the fast usually with dates and water – begins for Muslims observing Ramadan.

In other words:

WhatYouDidThere

I’m torn about how to think about this.

Make no mistake, Hassen was cheating. Simulation is a violation of the rules of the game. While it usually comes up in situations where a player is trying to draw a foul or a penalty kick it applies just as much when a player feigns injury for some reason. That happens late in games when one team is trying to kill time or simply blunt the momentum of the other side when it’s seeking a game-winning or game-tying goal.

On the other hand, the benefit to his team wasn’t something completely unusual in modern soccer. If a player gets hurt – enough that the game stops for trainers to trot out on the field and tend to him – the teams routinely take a chance to get a drink. I’ve seen players slurp Gatorade-style goo from tubes on the sideline, too. Given the rigors of a soccer match, it’s not unusual for players to take any chance they can to hydrate and such.

Thus, part of me wants to chock this up to “creative gamesmanship” and give it a pass. And it happened in friendlies, anyway, so there wasn’t anything really at stake (Ramadan will be over by the time the Cup starts, so it won’t come up there). But it’s still faking an injury to gain an advantage, however slight, and that’s a chicken shit thing to do.

So, no more of this, folks. But, you know, pretty clever of you to think of it in the first place.