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Grim Realities for England’s Global Football Following

While their close neighbors and erstwhile enemies in Ireland, Scotland and Wales crow this morning over another anguished English exit from the World Cup, great swaths of the globe suffer alongside the Albion faithful. Some of this is due to the sheer size of the cultural footprint left by the mother country, once an Empire, today a Commonwealth. Yet millions more in places that have shaken off even that lighter cohesion (Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Capetown) still follow the English game because the English introduced it to them a century ago. Billions more pay special attention for reasons better explained by 21st century marketing: Across Asia, the Middle East and the United States, 25 years of English Premier League broadcasts have bred spectacular ratings and merchandize sales, ephemeral things that have ultimately morphed into a form of allegiance — a fandom all the better fed by internet access to the always entertaining, bandwagon-inclined British football media.

For 30 minutes in Moscow on Wednesday, the English would appear to have produced — for the first time in 54 years — a team equal to this global glut of hope and expectation.

To the delight of Gaels everywhere, it was instead Croatia that earned a place in Sunday’s World Cup final against France, claiming a dogged 2-1 victory in extra time. This had been another pillar of English support Wednesday — the prospect of a cross-Channel, once-more-into-the-breech final, a rematch some 1,054 years in the making! But the indefatigable Croats were deserving winners. They adjusted and persevered where England could not.

The opening half hour would appear to have signaled the next in a series of sanguine developments for the English at this World Cup. A weak group had led to a preposterously easy side of the tournament draw. A great escape vs. Colombia in the Round of 16 (on penalties of all things) was followed by a thorough bludgeoning of Sweden (a team England had beaten just twice in 16 tries). In Wednesday’s semifinal, Kieran Trippier’s splendid free kick put England ahead 1-0 after just 7 minutes. The ensuing 20 minutes saw Raheem Sterling, the sprightly Man City striker, run rings around the Croatian defense.

This was the key to the game: England found it so easy to get Sterling in behind Croatian centerbacks Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, another goal seemed just a matter of time. Harry Kane indeed should have made it 2-0 after 15 minutes, having found himself on the doorstep with the option to shoot or slide it to Sterling for a tap-in. He went for goal, had it saved, then clanged the rebound off keeper Danijel Subasic and the post. That ball goes in and there’s no way back for the Croatians, though it seemed of little consequence at the time. The English were that good, that confident on the ball, that in control of this match.

That dominance, in a roundabout way, proved England’s undoing. Instead of continuing to patiently knock the ball around and pick the Croats apart (a side running on fumes after playing two exhausting knockout games in the previous 7 days), England were beguiled by Sterling’s ability to get in behind Lovren and Vida. The last 15 minutes of the half were squandered, as the English eschewed possession and impulsively pumped long balls over the top.

Pundits have claimed that England played an excellent half on Wednesday. They did not. They played an excellent half hour, then muddled their way to the break with a lead only half (or a third) of what it should have been.

Croatia made one vital adjustment before intermission, dropping Lovren and Vida off Kane (and his withdrawn running mate Dele Alli), in order to better cope with the speedy threat of Sterling. After halftime, they changed things up again — pressing England higher up the pitch. All of a sudden, central midfielder Jordan Henderson had no time on the ball. After 45 minutes of expert English distribution out of the back, Croatia took this away.

England made no adjustment at halftime and much as it tried, could not make one on the fly. The long balls continued, with ever diminishing returns. Faced with this increased pressure, Henderson and the entire English defense were a study in creeping panic — launching hopeful balls forward rather than risk having it taken by the Croats who, the longer this game went (despite their travails), looked the more energetic side. In the first 30 minutes Henderson & Co. looked imperious. After 60, they no longer wanted the ball at their feet. At this level, that is a recipe for just one thing: hanging on for dear life.

All of this ignores fully half the match, which would indeed require 120 minutes to decide. Ivan Perisic (I’ll not be bothering here with all the various Croatian accent marks, you’ll notice) leveled things on 70 minutes and England’s descent into anxiety and fatigue only got steeper. They were lucky to make it to extra time, when Mario Mandzukic struck the winner some 7 minutes before the onset of penalty kicks. England made the maximum four substitutions over the last hour, desperately looking to change the game, to change its own footing in and approach to the match. Nothing worked. Trippier injured his groin after the Mandzukic goal; having exhausted their allotment of subs, England finished meekly, playing 10 v. 11.

In the end, the Croats proved more canny, more flexible, more skilled, more confident, more dogged, more fit. They were deserving winners.

I haven’t partaken of the vaunted English footballing press this morning. I’m sure the knives have come out, the weight of all that worldwide hope and expectation having crashed down about the head and shoulders manager Gareth Southgate and his young team. There are questions to be answered, of course, because this remains a very young team (the youngest at the World Cup, save Nigeria), full of promise:

  • Is Southgate the man to lead them at the European Championships in two years time? Probably, but he frittered away (or his boys frittered away) a very winnable World Cup semifinal.
  • England scored more goals in this World Cup than any since 1966 (a tournament they won, on home soil). But very few (3 of 12) came from open play. The rest came from corner kicks, free kicks, penalty kicks. Can any team win big tournaments relying so nakedly on set pieces? Maybe. The French went through to the final via a set-piece goal. There have been an inordinate number of them at this World Cup: 30 percent of the total, higher than the rate posted in the pro leagues of Germany (21.8%), England (20.2%), Italy (18.5%), Spain (16.9%) and France (15.6%). Do we think there have been so many on account of VAR? Are we seeing a shift in the way elite football is played, i.e. defenders can’t manhandle guys in the box with the same impunity, for fear of retro-awarded PKs? I think there’s something to this.
  • With quality all around the edges, can England win without a confident, playmaking midfielder or two of real quality — men who will hold their nerve when a World Cup semifinal hangs in the balance? This cuts to the core of English football, esp. in the Premier League era, when foreigners are typically paid big bucks to occupy these creative roles. The larger question: Can the English still produce such players, full stop? Croatia can. This 2018 England team was in desperate need of someone the quality of Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic (whom my nephew calls Rocket-tits).
  • Why bring Reuben Loftus-Cheek to this tournament and not play him late in the semi-final when England desperately needed his possession? Young player. Didn’t see action in this WC but for the meaningless group game vs. Belgium. It would have been a difficult spot for the lad, but he was just what the doctor ordered.

These are the questions Englishmen and women are asking this morning, the questions English football fans the world over are asking. With the United States National Team sitting at home, they are the questions I am asking.

We pose them not because we expect answers but because a World Cup with England still in the running is a more interesting World Cup. All credit to the Croats, their sheer will and kick-ass checkerboard kits. I hope they make a game of it on Sunday. But for literally billions of football fans/observers the world over, England v. France would have been a more absorbing spectacle. Instead, all we get is yet another meaningless match (the day before) against Belgium.

 

 

 

 

In or Out? Why Linesmen So Often Get it Wrong

This ball was deemed out of play. Clearly, it was not…

We’ve reached the first 48-hour break in what has been a delightful frenzy of World Cup matches. The round of 16, our first knock-out stage, concluded Tuesday. Quarterfinals start Friday. Through the magic of YouTubeTV and its DVR function (we cut the cable cord in June), I’ve managed to see most every game. A few observations:

•••

This may strike one as extremely small bore but I think the marginal sideline in/out decision is called wrongly more often than anything else in top-class football. The statute is clear: FIFA’s Rule 9 reads, “The ball is out of play when it has wholly crossed the goal line or touch line whether in the ground or in the air.” The advent of goal-line technology has given us  a new, better perspective on this rule. A birds’-eye view of the ball is what matters; the ball is in play until it’s entirely over the line, until there can be seen (from above) a sliver of green grass between the ball and touchline. Technology, now in the hands of a Video Assistant Referees (VAR), has brought new accuracy to goal-line decisions (and schooled observers on the over-arching rules relating to all in/out decisions — but touchline decisions remain in the hands of linesmen and the man in the middle, and they get it wrong way too often. I’ve noticed this for years now but VAR has brought in into clearer focus. Touchline decisions are called differently and I think I know why: Linesmen aren’t looking at it from above, of course. From a ground level view, if linesmen see any sort of green between ball and line they judge the ball to be out of play when the entire ball, according to Rule 9, has clearly not passed wholly over the line — something that would be obvious with a birds-eye view. The lead image atop this post (a screen grab; thanks again, YouTubeTV) provides a perfect example. This ball was called out for a corner. One can sorta tell the players are increasingly peeved by this double standard and why shouldn’t they be? Players on the ball do have a bird’s-eye view. There appears to be one standard for the goal line and another for every other boundary on the field. I’ve not seen nor heard nor read of VAR ever being used to mete out a touchline decision. I’m not advocating for that. But possession is important and in/out should better hew to the standard spelled out in Rule 9.

•••

The short-handed Colombians were put out of the tournament by England Tuesday in a Round of 16 affair that was at once pedestrian and completely riveting. That’s what an otherwise punchless World Cup match that goes to penalty kicks can do, especially where England are involved. Just the idea that some 60 million Brits were watching the game — increasingly pissed, in the fetal position, waiting for something catastrophic to happen — imbues all of their knock-out fixtures with that certain, extra-special something. Their boys didn’t disappoint — blowing the game, then rescuing it — and the rest of us duly lapped up the many layers of shadenfreude. The English did indeed have it won before conceding a 94th minute equalizer and sleep-walking through extra time toward penalties, the tie-breaking mechanism that has put them out of three World Cups and three European Championships. It’s a tragically accurate running joke in England that the national team cannot cope with, much less win, a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament (Tuesday’s win makes them 2-6 overall). It’s harped upon nearly as often as the fact that, “We invented this game.” But they won this shootout, celebrated accordingly, and they’re off to face plucky Sweden in a Saturday quarterfinal where the stakes, the alcohol intake, the national anxiety will be that much higher.

•••

Golden Boy James Rodriquez was the reason Colombia played short-handed Tuesday, having pulled up lame in the last group game. James (pronounced hah-mez) bears a fairly striking resemblance to a young John Harkes, US midfielder from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Colombian and his coiffure cut a more metrosexual pose than Harkes and his period mullet ever could. But close enough to meet the ‘Separated at Birth’ threshold, eh? Or maybe first cousins?… This is the sort of thing an American soccer fan is reduced to when we fail to qualify.

•••

I’ve now watched and participated in hundreds of these penalty shootouts (the Round of 16 produced three in eight matches). I’m surprised goalkeepers, at this elite level, don’t hold their ground at least once in the first couple kicks, if not to account for a Panenka or blast down the middle, then to plant in the heads of subsequent shooters the possibility that he might not be guessing/diving one way or the other as the shootout progresses. For keepers, this guessing has been the long-standing strategy: Shooters are so close that goalies must guess which way a shooter is going with the ball — and hope for the best. Yet so many elite players today basically trust their ability to see the keeper’s movement and, at the very last second, go the opposite way with the ball. A goalie who doesn’t move would completely freak the shooter out – and give every succeeding shooter uneasy food for thought.

•••

More observations from the first two weeks: Poor Japan. They deserved better than a 3-2 Round of 16 loss to Belgium on the last kick of the game. But honestly, WTF were they thinking — committing so many men to a corner kick (tiny team vs. big team) in the 94th minute tied at 2? It was a bold decision, I’ll grant you. But I’d have put a few token dudes in the box, stayed behind the ball essentially, and taken my chances in extra time… Sweden has played 50 World Cup matches in its history. Only Mexico has played more without winning a Cup. Yet Sweden’s international record is far more decorated. Indeed, Sverige is perhaps the globe’s most underrated soccer nation. This country of just 7 million souls, where one cannot play outside all year round, has produced a World Cup finalist (1958), three semifinalists (1938, 1950, 1994) and two quarterfinalists (1934, 2018). It may well better a last-8 finish this year — all without Zlatan Ibrahimovich, the finest Swedish player of his generation (perhaps of all time) who, though still active (in MLS), petulantly retired from international play two years ago. Sweden’s example is something for American soccer boosters to ponder when reckoning grandiose future goals. The US has reached a single quarterfinal, full stop… FIFA is as corrupt as they come, but it’s important to recognize the root and nature of that corruption. Since the late 1980s, FIFA’s particular corruption is born of the fact that each and every participating nation (all 211 of them) have a vote in where the World Cup will be held every four years. And make no mistake: Those votes do in fact get bought. But let’s also be real: Without this sort of arrangement (which leads to coalition-building and corruption), there would never have been World Cups in Africa, or Russia, or the Middle East. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that Qatar paid through the nose, to literally hundreds of national football federations, order to secure the 2022 event. And yes, repressive regimes benefit from buying such events — but so do the soccer-loving masses in those countries and regions. Ask an African soccer fan if it was worth it to have the 2010 event in South Africa. Ask a Saudi if they’re happy the World Cup is coming to Qatar. Moving the Cup around is good for the world game. Without its particular brand of corruption, the event would be held somewhere in Europe or North/South America every four years, forever… Mark Geiger, the only American referee participating in this World Cup, drew a very tough assignment in the England-Colombia match. It’s hard to imagine how a more experienced, skilled ref would’ve handled things without killing the game: Colombia deserved to have 2-3 guys sent off for dissent alone following the quite-right penalty kick decision that put England up 1-0. Radamel Falcao has complained publicly about Geiger’s performance, claiming he favored the English. But any neutral observer could plainly see the Colombians, down a goal, ratchet up the physicality in hopes of turning the match back in their favor. Unfortunately, Geiger didn’t want to decide said match by sending anyone off — something those Colombians sensed immediately. In bending over backward to preserve Colombia’s chance of ultimately getting a result, Geiger may have torpedoed his own career at this level.

 

 

 

The Most Productive Response to World Cup Failure? Choose and Support an MLS Club

Who is best equipped to cope with U.S. Soccer’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup? Seattle Sounders fans…

Instead of asking where U.S. Soccer goes from here, let’s take a bit of time to first understand where we are, and why.

Dropping the Oct. 10 match to Trinidad & Tobago and missing out on the Russian World Cup this summer do not change America’s standing in the soccer world.

In the grand scheme of things, we are still operating in the “modern” era of American soccer, thanks to a generation of now-50something players who, almost exactly 28 years earlier (on the same Caribbean island), qualified their country (one that had operated for 40 years as an irrelevant footballing nation) for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. From that moment forward, the U.S. graduated into the company of proper footballing nations, i.e. those that qualify for World Cup finals with regularity and harbor reasonable expectations of advancing out of the group stage. Here’s the proof of this evolution: 1990 marked the first of seven straight World Cup appearances for the U.S., four of which ended in the knockout stage.

To argue that missing the 2018 World Cup “shows everything is wrong with the United States doesn’t follow,” Stephan Szymanski told The New York Times this week. Symanski, co-author of the wondrous book, Soccernomics, is among the keenest soccer observers on the planet. “This doesn’t prove that. Stuff happens. It’s the nature of the game and not necessarily surprising to see the U.S. knocked out. This is what being a soccer fan is like. You’re prone to the extreme event all the time. There’s no royal road, unless you’re Brazil or Germany.”

We’ll unpack this more thoroughly below, but this understanding of world football viability is really important for U.S. fans to get their heads around in wake of this week’s admittedly gut-wrenching events. Not going to Russia truly sucks, on multiple levels, and while it may well prove a “teachable moment” for the U.S. soccer establishment, we are obliged to remain clear-eyed about how international football works and exactly why this failure to qualify (for the first time since 1986) truly IS such a pivotal moment. Because it’s not what you may think.

As I’ve written before, international football is hard. Failures like Tuesday’s happen each and every World Cup (and European Championship) cycle, to perfectly capable footballing nations. England missed the WC in 1974 (just 8 years after winning the whole ball of wax), then again in 1978 and 1994. The Netherlands just crashed out of Russia 2018 qualifying — the second straight major-tournament qualification failure for one of the world’s traditional powers. Chile, runners-up at last summer’s Confederations Cup and one of the game’s most entertaining sides, failed to qualify for Russia, too. So did mighty Italy, qualifiers for every WC finals since 1958.

Every four years, at least one really good European team and one strong South American side don’t qualify for the World Cup. In England, Holland and now Chile & Italy, these failures either have led to or will lead to real soul-searching re. team coaching, talent identification/development, and national team administration. This is the introspective process American soccer is wrestling with now.

But if history is any guide, this introspection will come to nothing.

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Decade-old, Yank-laden Fulham Phenomenon Revisited

[Ten years ago, I ventured to the SW6 section of London to report on the Yank-laden Fulham FC phenomenon for espn.com. The first installment of this two-part feature still lives on the web. See here. Can’t find the back half so I’ve reprinted it here at www.halphillips.net … The Cottagers would survive the 2007 relegation battle detailed below and spend another eight years in the Premiership — a scrappy, mid-table tenure highlighted by a 2010 appearance in the Europa Cup final. Alas, 10 years on, FFC are back in the Championship, having been relegated in 2014. The club made the playoffs in 2016-17 and look primed for another promotion challenge this season, which starts Saturday, Aug. 5, at home to Norwich — and the roster still includes a couple Americans: 19-year-old Luca de la Torre and USMNT centerback Tim Ream. C’mon you Whites!]

LONDON — It doesn’t much matter whether the pre-game pint comes north or south of the Thames. If your destination is Craven Cottage, you’re pretty much obliged to approach the ground from the east — directly through Bishops Park, a stretch of riverside green space that surely stands as the most comely stadium walk-up in the Premiership, if not all of Christendom.

It’s late March and we’re in town to watch Fulham F.C. and its bevy of American footballers play host to Portsmouth. The sun is shining and life is good. The Cottagers have yet to secure but one point from their next three games, and coach Chris Coleman won’t be sacked for two more weeks. The mood is buoyant as we join thousands of Fulham supporters in Bishops for the long walk that nevertheless passes quickly, as befits a walk in the park.

Craven Cottage was built in 1896 and hasn’t been significantly modernized since. Yes, the club has added seating on the Thames side, but the original Johnny Haynes Stand opposite (named for the man who played a club-record 658 games for Fulham and scored 158 goals between 1952-70) looks all of its 110-plus years: well kept but truly ancient — right down to its original brick masonry, its lattice of exposed ductwork under the stands, and its wooden fold-down seats buffed smooth and dark by eons of intimate backside contact.

Imagine Fenway Park, built for soccer and sitting right on the Charles River — with no plastic and better beer (at two-thirds the price). That’s Craven Cottage, the perfect venue for London’s oldest professional football club.

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US Soccer: Just how bare is thy cupboard?

USMNT manager Bruce Arena in lighter times — with former L.A. Galaxy charge, David Beckham.

Some 60 minutes into what remained of a 1-0 game in San Jose, Costa Rica on Nov. 15, 2016, BeIN color commentator Thomas Rongen festered aloud at the visiting Americans’ inability to go forward. He identified the problem, quite rightly, as originating in the center of midfield, where 29-year-old Michael Bradley dropped ever deeper and 35-year-old Jermaine Jones drifted even further into irrelevance. Rongen suggested that Jurgen Klinsmann needed to make a change — that inserting Sacha Kljestan was the best option to link up, in attacking fashion, with the troika of Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic.

It was then that I realized the U.S. was doomed this night and that Klinsi would soon be out of a job. Rongen’s analysis was spot on. But if Sacha Kljestan is your best midfield attacking option off the bench, one can reasonably argue the cupboard is more or less bare.

As it happened, Klinsmann was relieved of his U.S Men‘s National Team duties the following Tuesday morning and L.A. Galaxy skipper Bruce Arena was hired in his place.  And so, pointless and facing a win-at-all-costs game at home vs. Honduras this Friday night, March 24, U.S. Soccer finds itself at an unfamiliar crossroads.

Yeah, sure, the U.S. has once or twice stumbled or started slowly in Hexagonals past.

But the U.S. finds itself in an altogether different situation in 2017.

Prior to 1990, the U.S. had never qualified for a World Cup, of course. That signal success, after 40 years of utter failure, ushered in a new era of American soccer, one where qualification was a given and the challenge lay in determining a) how U.S. teams would inevitably ascend to the next echelon, to truly compete toe-to-toe with the best 12-15 teams on the planet, and b) who would lead them to this new place of relevance.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to relevance.

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Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

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[This post was excerpted and adapted from the author’s current book project, “Generation Zero: The 1990 World Cup Team and the Making of Soccer in America”.]

In joining the wide chorus of praise for director Daniel Gordon’s superb “30 for 30” documentary on the Hillsborough soccer disaster, we should be reminded of two things: First, the state of British football fandom in the mid- to late-1980s was legitimately menacing and pervasive; and second, the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster (where 39 died in a similar crush of humanity) should hang over the Hillsborough proceedings with a pall all its own.

That Gordon never found space in his film for Heysel, nor Britain’s genuine cultural worry over hooliganism (and Liverpool’s connection thereto) is somewhat startling.

Gordon was clearly at pains to accentuate the unfair and, some would argue, criminal treatment that Liverpool fans received in the wake of Hillsborough. It’s a fair and important point, and the facts here have been too long obscured. However, the context Gordon seeks — namely, that Liverpool’s reputation for hooligan behavior contributed to the way the disaster was investigated — cannot be summoned without a discussion of Heysel, which colored everything that came afterward and certainly fixed uncomfortable attention on a club (and fan base) that played central roles in both tragedies.

Liverpool FC was indeed front and center on May 29, 1985, when the Reds met Juventus of Turin in the European Cup Final (forebear to today’s Champions League Final). Thirty-nine fans (predominantly Italian) perished that night in Brussels, where Liverpool fans stormed a purportedly neutral area inside the gates but outside the stadium itself. Juventus fans fled from the threat, into the stadium, toward a concrete retaining wall. Fans already seated there were crushed by the onslaught of humanity — then the wall collapsed.

Unlike the Hillsborough narrative, very little of the above account is disputed, by Liverpool supporters or anyone else. Six hundred more were injured at Heysel that night and, as a result, English clubs were banned from all European competitions for five years (Liverpool was banned for 10, but was allowed back after 7 years served).

Gordon makes the important point that, rightly or wrongly, the fear of untoward supporter behavior tragically influenced police actions before, during and after the tragic 1989 FA Cup semifinal. The presumption that drunken fan violence had played a role ultimately moved the English Football Association (FA) to an appalling continuum of cynical posturing. That same presumption influenced media coverage of the event for years to come.

As such, it’s vital to understand the climate in which that semifinal, and so many other matches were routinely played during this period.

The police, the FA and the media behaved abominably post-Hillsborough. Full stop.

However, they were not behaving in a vacuum. The mid- to late-1980s were rife with soccer hooliganism. Serious alcohol consumption routinely played a role.

And yet Gordon touches on this broader cultural phenomenon very little.

Hey, it’s a big subject — probably too big to address fully/fairly in a 120-minute documentary on Hillsborough. But again, methinks Gordon soft-pedaled it because undo context here would tend to explain, if not justify, the behavior/presumptions of police, the FA and media in relation to Hillsborough.

Gordon does make it clear that police, the FA and England’s tabloid culture took this fear of hooliganism — born of Heysel and myriad other incidents involving dozens of clubs — and manipulated it in disgraceful fashion. However, menacing fan behavior was no figment of the FA’s nor Rupert Murdoch’s imagination.

It was all too real and totally out of control in many cases, as I witnessed first hand.

•••

It can be argued that the spring of 1985 represented the nadir of British football hooliganism, as Heysel had not yet gone down and English supporters still traveled to away grounds, foreign and domestic, with impunity. As it happened, this low point coincided with the semester I spent at the University of London, on loan, as it were, from my American college. I traveled all over the city that winter and spring, taking in a dozen matches at three separate grounds.

My maiden voyage, however, would prove the ultimate eye-opener.

I had two English roommates at the Westfield College, University of London; both were rugby fans and sarcastically dismissed football as a meaningless diversion for working class oiks. Accordingly, when Barry — a fellow American and Sheffield Wednesday fan (thanks to several summers spent in South Yorkshire with his cousins) — suggested we and I take in the Chelsea-Wednesday match one early February night at Stamford Bridge, I didn’t even mention it to my roommates. Off Barry and I went.

The word “hooligan” has always been loaded with questionable motivation, but there is no doubt that English soccer in the mid-1980s was then developing, in earnest, its notorious reputation for what has since become known, in a blanket fashion, as “hooliganism”, whereby traveling supporters of certain clubs would clash with home-standing counterparts before, during and after matches in miniature manifestations of England’s particular brand of xenophobia. People always harp upon English hatred of the French, and they do hate them (who wouldn’t). But in truth, the English aren’t particularly fond of anyone in Europe. Indeed, people from the South of England belittle people from the North, and vice versa; residents of Shropshire deride their neighbors in Worcestershire, and vice versa; even neighboring towns have managed to work up healthy mutual hatreds over the course of centuries.

As a consequence, “support” for football clubs routinely takes on a tribal, fever pitch (to borrow a phrase) the likes of which we really cannot imagine here in the States. There is no cultural equivalent that even begins to fit.

The year before, after Liverpool had defeated Roma in the 1984 European Cup Final, bands of Italian toughs on scooters had apparently attacked celebrating British fans as they danced in the Eternal City’s many fountains. Hit and run, or hit and scoot, apparently. This sort of behavior didn’t sit well with the English, as it probably wouldn’t with anyone. A year later, at Heysel, it was payback time.

Yet fan violence wasn’t reserved for internationals. English fans — not all fans, but relatively small subgroups of young toughs — routinely practiced their sordid craft at domestic matches, where rivalries were arguably more heated. Familiarity and contempt, don’t you know. This was the backdrop, only a few months pre-Heysel, as Barry and I left Westfield College, in the north London borough of Hampstead, for south London.

The tableau in and around Stamford Bridge that night was truly surreal. We came up and out of the Fulham Broadway Tube station and immediately walked past a pub that had been thoroughly gutted, all its windows shattered following a punch-up late that afternoon apparently; police and angry masses milled about everywhere.

Picture the scene from Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen and the boys reach that bridge, the one a few clicks beyond which lies Cambodia and certain peril, the one eerily bejeweled with hanging lights and flairs, where a night-time firefight rages and chaos reigns. I love that scene, and that’s what it was like in and around Stamford Bridge that night, minus (ironically) the illuminated bridge. It was an atmosphere only enhanced by the fact that the river of supporters streaming toward the ground was continually fed by tributaries emanating from local pubs. Plus, I’d gotten well and duly stoned before leaving Hampstead. I was effectively channeling Timothy Bottom’s surfer dude character, Lance, who was transfixed but not effectively warned by the spectacle.

Following Barry’s lead we entered the stadium through a portal reserved for visiting fans alongside a gaggle of Wednesday supporters. The terrace (no seats) set aside for visitors at Stamford Bridge was located behind the North goal. To our left there was nothing — just a sunken access road, well below us, that led to the field. Indeed, 30 feet of open space separated us from the main stand along the touchline.

To our right was an unoccupied terrace guarded on either side by 15-foot, wrought-iron fencing punctuated at foot-long intervals by sharp spikes. Beyond that was the remainder of Stamford Bridge’s North Terrace, occupied by thousands of Chelsea fans, clearly hammered and beside themselves with venom, all of it aimed at — us.

I had been utterly naïve about this excursion. I would soon learn what I should have known beforehand — what my roommates would have readily told me — namely, that Chelsea supporters, back then anyway, were among the “hardest” and most hostile in London, rivaled only by Millwall’s and West Ham’s. Put the money of Russian oligarch ownership out of your mind. This was not the posh club it is today. Chelsea was a hardscrabble, working class club in 1985, with fans to match.

Today, as home to one of the world football’s richest clubs, Stamford Bridge is a jewel (I’ve heard some older fans deride it as a bleedin’ galleria). In 1985, it was no such thing. Picture a dingy, no-frills ground very much like the Hillsborough we see in Gordon’s documentary.

•••

Inside the ground, the Wednesday fans (along with at least one woefully underprepared, somewhat stoned Yank), occupied a pen current observers might also recognize from the “Hillsborough” documentary. No seats. Completely enclosed. But that February evening in 1985, we were but a few hundred traveling supporters from Sheffield. There was no crush of fans clamoring to enter all at once. There was plenty of room to move about freely, though we instead huddled together — to guard against the cold and various projectiles.

From the outset and this considerable distance — the full width of the open terrace, maybe 25 yards — the Chelsea faithful pelted us with AAA batteries and pound coins. However, to be honest, it wasn’t all that threatening. It was a bit of a laugh at that stage. What a good and practical idea, I remember thinking, to leave that section open, as a buffer.

The game? Well, at times it seemed almost secondary to our homestanding neighbors a section removed. Chelsea scored first, through Kerry Dixon, and Sheffield managed to equalize just before halftime.

About then, to our horror, the empty section that separated the home crowd from ours was opened up, practical caution apparently giving way to the reality of ticket sales.

What ensued was a jailbreak. There’s no other way to describe it, and it lends insight to the rush/crush of fans that took place at Heysel and Hillsborough. The Chelsea throng poured over (!) and around this huge, spear-tipped fence like a horde of rabid 11th century Danes, and made a beeline for the lone wrought-iron barrier now separating us. Soon they were pressed up against it, screaming obscenities and taunting us, their arms reaching through the fence like desperate, famished prisoners. We all instinctively moved away from the fence, gathering at the far edge of the terrace and pulling our jackets up around our heads so as not to take a AAA in the ear. Let me tell you: It was fucking scary. I remember turning to Barry and saying, “I should NOT have gotten stoned.”

This was not some frenzied spasm of menace that faded with time. The Chelsea fans were on us the whole time, the entire second half, bombarding us with all manner of pocket-sized ammo. Thank god no human could spit that far.

There was no police presence in the terrace, only a smattering along the access/egress concourse that ran along the back of all three sections, behind the north goal. While the Chelsea horde had scaled one wrought-iron fence, an identical fence continued to separate them from us. The only thing stopping them from invading our space was, well… I don’t know. The fact that police were watching from above and perhaps an obscure, deep-seated tenet of British restraint?

Fortunately Chelsea scored in the final 10 minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. I don’t want to think about how things might have played out if Wednesday leveled things, or managed to win the game. As a player myself (at the time), I remember considering the prospect later that night: Did the Wednesday players, for example, recognize what victory might mean for the 800 or so supporters who’ve traveled down from Sheffield? Can one try to win with all the same commitment, knowing that a goal or victory — or perhaps a goal celebration taken a bit too far — might well bring a battery down on someone’s head, to say nothing of what might happen afterwards, outside the stadium?

Today, in the more refined Premiership era, visiting players score and make beelines to visiting fan sections, where much fist pumping and bellowing is enjoyed by the merry bands of traveling supporters. English football comportment was generally far less exhibitionist during the 1980s (so few of the games were televised). But visiting goal celebrations were relatively muted, in part, so as not to put traveling supporters in unnecessary danger inside and outside the ground.

As it was, when the final whistle blew and the referee pointed to the spot, the home supporters spent a few minutes hugging each other and chanting before they turned back to us and emptied their pockets one last time.

The trip out of the stadium was more frightening still. We Wednesday supporters exited first — and now there were several dozen policemen to help us execute this delicate task. The entire stadium was sealed but for our Bobby-lined egress route, which, of course, passed right behind our neighboring terrace, where the horde reached out to us one last time through the fence. They let us have it again, but I didn’t see any of this spectacle. I had my coat up over my head.

Outside the stadium there were two long lines of police on horseback; we walked between them the three city blocks back to the Tube station, where a special train was waiting for us. We piled on, the doors closed, and, as we slowly pulled away, a group of Chelsea fans burst down onto the platform, half of them singing “We love you Chelsea/Oh yes we do-oo…”, while the other half reiterated the epithets to which we had become accustomed inside the Bridge.

The context is important: Wednesday was and remains no particular rival of Chelsea’s. This was a run-of-the-mill, February match between a pair of mid-table sides, with nothing special to play for. And yet the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters was dire — and routine. That everyday menace like this, and incidents like Heysel, did nothing to move the FA toward meaningful institutional reform and stadium renovation, is a bit mystifying 30 years on. That it took Hillsborough to make that happen, finally, is tragic.

Back at Westfield, just off the Finchley Road, I found my roommates at home and started to regale them with tales of my nerve-rattling introduction to top-flight English football. Yet I’d hardly begun when Trevor interrupted. “Hang on, mate. You sat with the away supporters?” As indicated, Trev was no football fan back then, but he knew enough to throw a disbelieving glance at Adrian, before turning back to me. “That was fucking stupid.”

 

 

 

Das Reboot: German Scraps Aid U.S. Soccer

Das Reboot: German Scraps Aid U.S. Soccer

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Germany’s much-ballyhooed rebuilding program has become the default reasoning behind Sunday’s World Cup trophy, but they’re nowhere special without one young gun in particular, Tomas Mueller.

One of the practical joys of watching any proper soccer tournament is the breadth of exposure given to teams that matter. The group phase can be tedious. When the world’s best teams congregate, some also-rans are surely caught in the crossfire. But these three games provide an early indication of who’s got what, and the first two knockout game effectively produce four worthy semifinalists — not the best four teams in the world, but the best in this tournament.

This is true of any tournament, but it just so happens that World Cups, European Championships, and, to a lesser extent, Copas Mundial, are televised. But if you watched your kid’s U-14 tournament upstate, and it deployed this standard competitive format, and you watched pretty much every game (which you can’t, because they aren’t televised), you would nevertheless enjoy the same qualitative and quantitative exposure to the most worthy combatants in the competition.

After watching Germany and Argentina play six times, Brazil and Holland six times, and all the quarterfinalists five times, it’s now clear  the 2014 FIFA World Cup successfully identified Germany as the tournament’s best team. And so we should applaud the 1-0 result because it was both just and deserved.

This is a championship process most Americans “identify” more with golf and the USGA, whose famously punishing course setups are designed not to do anything abstract like protect par, or give the world’s best players some lesson in humility, but to identify the best player over four days of play.

Here our good friends at FIFA do a comparable and creditable job, mainly because they can’t screw it up — not the breadth of exposure part anyway. This format isn’t anything peculiar or innovative from FIFA. Again, it’s how soccer tournaments are run at the African Cup of Nations and the Crossroads Challenge here in New Gloucester, Maine.

Results can be stolen, or given away, but tournaments seldom are.

I thought Argentina were actually very good in the final, the first half especially. I don’t know why they took off the effective Lavezzi, though if Aguero is healthy, one supposes one must play him. Whether they can tactically be played together, or not, is something on which I’m not comfortable challenging Coach Carlos Sabella, who generally played his hand well.

But the Germans were superior and now we hear why/how exactly it was they scaled these heights. Once Vlad Putin had leaned over and congratulated Angela Merkel on the victory, there ensued   a hale of sobriquet-laden analysis re.  Das German Reboot, the overhaul of Germany’s player evaluation and academy systems that launched in 2000, whereupon the Germans had gone 4 whole years without winning anything (one has to go all the way back to the 1996 Euros in England; prior to that, World Cup Italia 1990 — those are high standards).

Lost in amid all this bootlicking is this irrefutable fact: It’s a damned good thing for the United States that Germany stepped up that player development effort when they did. With a surfeit of young talent, Merkel’s Boys can afford to let players like John Brooks, Julian Greene, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones play for us!

And who’s the U.S. coach? Jurgen Klinsmann, a figure integral to Das Reboot — he was national team jefe for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where a very young but promising group (Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Klose, Neuer) was thrown into the fire (under similar, home-country pressures that ultimately poleaxed Brazil) and finished third.

This all wraps up very neatly. They win World Cups, and we just happen to disproportionately benefit from the German scraps, which are better than anything much we can produce on our own. If Das Reboot is successful enough, we should snag some REALLY good castoffs between now and Russia 2018.

 

 

 

A Modest Proposal: Award Penalty Kicks from the Spot of the Foul

A Modest Proposal: Award Penalty Kicks from the Spot of the Foul

Robben Marquez

While much of the soccer world at large is surely gratified to see Americans finally taking to the game — record Nielsen ratings (even for games not involving the Yanks) have been accompanied by admirable on-field performances — many international observers do worry the U.S. will eventually use its outsized cultural sway to exert undo, ill-considered influence on their game.

There is, in fact, considerable precedent for this wariness. In the 1980s, the North American Soccer League toyed with an offside line that was just 35-yards from goal. Major League Soccer, the top league here in the U.S., insists on playing its season from Spring through the Fall (to avoid competing with the NFL and NBA), whereas every other league in the world plays Fall through Spring. MLS also plays official games on artificial turf, a FIFA no-no. Some have even alleged the “cooling breaks” inaugurated during this World Cup are the result of some American conspiracy that will lead, incrementally, to in-game commercial breaks.

What’s more, I think we’ve all been in bars with some soccer-watching American yahoo who confidently proclaims, “Here’s how they could make this sport a lot better…”

While I have spent the last 30 years patiently defending/explaining soccer’s status quo to small-minded people like this, I have also been witness some quite radical rule changes: Even used to be offside; now even is onside. Goalkeepers used to be able to handle any back pass from a teammate; now they cannot (unless it’s headed); extra time was never sudden death, then it was; now it isn’t anymore. This year we say hello to goal-line technology…

So, in the interest of progress, and despite my holding a valid U.S. Passport, allow me to advance one idea as a thought experiment:

Spot kicks in the penalty area should be taken from the spot of the infraction, not the penalty spot. If the foul takes place inside the 6-yard box, a traditional penalty is awarded.

This, too, is radical, but it would be more consistent with fouls called anywhere else on the field, i.e. foul occurs here; free kick is awarded on that spot. As with PKs currently, infractions resulting in a direct kick would require all players but the shooter and the keeper to clear the penalty area, until such time that the ball is played.

Why the change? As it stands now, the impact of PKs is, to say the least, outsized. We have attacking players actually going down in the box — trying to draw the ultimate foul — rather than trying to stay on their feet in order to consummate a legitimate scoring chance.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil has had its fair share of such episodes: Fred’s questionable tumble during the tournament opener, which drew a deciding penalty kick for the host nation. Even more notably, witness Rafa Marquez’ borderline, last-minute foul on Holland’s Arjen Robben, which resulted in a game-winning penalty kick and sent Mexico packing after the Round of 16 (again).

The Marquez Affair inspired all sorts of back (there was contact; he stepped on Robben’s foot) and forth (clearly an “embellishment” in contravention of the rules). However, this much is clear and straightforward: Robben was more interested (far more) in drawing that foul than in scoring, despite being so close to goal (with all sorts of teammates in the box who, upon receiving a pass, might well score). That’s a perversity, and this rule change would help address it.

At this level, the PK conversion rate is some 75-80 percent. PKs are awarded because an attacking player has presumably been denied a goal-scoring opportunity, i.e. the chance to shoot on goal. But how dangerous a position did Robben occupy when Marquez took him down? (Marquez didn’t, for the record, also surgically invade Robben’s abdomen and rip out the Dutchman’s severed spleen, Robben’s facial contortions, shouts of agony, and pathetic collapse to the turf notwithstanding).

The foul occurred on the goal line, or end line. I say, give Robben his free kick, place the ball at the spot of the foul — close to goal but at a poor angle — and let the chips fall where they may. The angle might be poor but the keeper must remain on the line, as per usual; he may not cut down the angle. So, Robben would be awarded a free kick that provides him a slightly better opportunity to score, from the spot of the foul, had he not been impeded. In other words, we are still giving defenders a disincentive to foul in the area. However, that opportunity for conversion, for scoring, would be more in keeping with the actual scoring chance — the one snuffed out by the foul.

The Marquez example is particularly instructive because imagine the strategy for PKs awarded there, under this proposed system: Robben can’t reasonably score from the touch line, from such an acute angle. He would have to seek out teammates scattered about the edge of the box, creating chances for them — much like a penalty corner in field hockey (I realize this movement has been set back some 15 years with that comparison, but it’s apt). These would be strategic but still flowing, soccer-centric scenarios, unlike penalty kicks which, in fact, are the most contrived thing in the game. Those situations — guys standing alone on the spot with no one around him, just him and the goalie — almost never happen in the run of play.

With no wall to take away the short-side post, goalies would be sorely tested from many spots in the box, naturally. These “new-generation” penalties would result in acrobatic saves. There would be brilliant, net-bulging strikes. But all of these chances and half-chances would be more in proportion to the scoring chance the foul prevented.

As indicated above, traditional PKs would be awarded only for fouls that take place in the six-yard box. That makes sense, as trying to keep the goalie on the line, when the ball is placed 3 yards in front of him, would be impractical. Further, a hand ball or foul that close to goal should rightly result in a goal 80 percent of the time.

Indeed, we may, through this rule change, have finally figured out why that mini-box exists. Purportedly, goal kicks can be taken anywhere inside of that box. But surely this is a waste of space and paint. There must be a more practical, intrinsic purpose, and this might be it.

Most interesting would be the new ruling’s effect on overall play in the box.

Right now, each offensive/defensive encounter in the box is all or nothing: Any sort of foul is a PK, almost surely a goal. Defenders are determined to avoid that foul and strikers will cheat in order to draw it. Under the new system, each offensive/defensive encounter would take on a gradation of risk. Defenders would be more aggressive on the goal line, and out on the peripheries of the penalty area. Referees will certainly call more fouls at the corners of the box more frequently — because the stakes out there would lower, and far more entertaining. Traditional PKs are boring, fait d’accomplits. I, for one, would like to see more mano-a-mano encounters between keepers and strikers who can really strike a 16-yard bullet — from an assortment of angles.

By the same token, less aggression would be manifest in the center or the box, in front of goal, where committing a foul would still result in a more or less point-blank penalty.

Maybe if this gradation of risk were realized, other aspects of the game would be positively affected. Currently, the amount of clutching and grabbing that takes place on any corner kick is absurd. At least one penalty kick could be called on every corner, at this level, if the referee so chose. However, if referees feel more at liberty to call clutching and grabbing at sharp, shallow angles to goal (because it’s not as if that referee would be handing one team an 80 percent chance at goal), clutching and grabbing generally, anywhere in front of goal, might subside.

The other piece of this equation is the tendency toward diving, or, as FIFA calls it, “embellishment”. We already have the means to snuff this out: calling the foul on the offensive player, the diver, and awarding a yellow card. This is a simple matter of referees more frequently whistling players for embellishment (and flashing the yellow caution, two of which get you ejected).

For some reason, refs have been loath to follow this course. There is squeamishness on the referee’s part — getting that call wrong might decide a game unfairly. But games are being unfairly decided right now, and FIFA, in a surprising bit of wisdom, was clever to call it “embellishment”. The foul is irrelevant. The overriding infraction is embellishing the foul in hopes of unduly influencing the referee, drawing a penalty kick, and perhaps getting your opponent thrown out of the game. Once you have embellished, it doesn’t matter if you were fouled. Name go in book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortune Favors the Brave? In Brazil, That Means Goals

Fortune Favors the Brave? In Brazil, That Means Goals

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I was just listening to the excellent Guardian football podcast (posted daily during the World Cup) and someone described Costa Rica’s performance against Italy (a 1-0 victory for The Ticos in the group stage) as being particularly brave.

Now, these podders are UK -based, mainly, and describing a soccer performance as brave is a particular British way of putting it, but as with many things English (the game, our language) it fits remarkably well.

What does brave really mean? There are so many contexts that inform, but let’s choose one familiar to us. Some Civil War figure grabs a flag standard and runs out in advance of the front lines, to encourage and embolden his mates. Well, let’s examine the act, and the word that could well describe it is brave.

Putting one’s live at risk, i.e. dancing around in the line of fire, without a gun (but with this honking big flag and pole), is something we would not normally do. It’s not advisable. If there’s an overarching strategy for humans (stay alive), and we apply that strategy to a war context, this act makes no sense. Better to stay in the anonymous line — and try to pick off some of those other guys whose strategy involves shooting at me (or better yet, find some nice, rear-guard job in tending to the sick or feeding the horses).

Teams like the Costa Ricans — lightly regarded for several good reasons: performance in WC Qualifying, history of producing players and teams of quality, the quality of their domestic league, number of players playing abroad in good leagues — would typically approach a game, such as their group encounter with four-times world champions Italy, with trepidation.

What does that mean? It means the opposite of bravery: defend like the dickens, in great numbers (say, 9 “behind the ball” — always between the ball and their own goal), and hope to lure enough Italians away from their defensive positions goal-scoring positions that the Costa Ricans can win possession and quickly counter-attack against relatively few defenders.

That’s a strategy, a common one for soccer teams playing a superior opponent. It’s a time-tested option — the strategy Jurgen Klinsmann looks to deploy with this American team. It’s not brave. It’s practical, and it’s part of what makes international football so interesting to watch, because it can work to great effect: An inferior-but-disciplined team can beat an superior undisciplined one.

Costa Rica took no account of the fact that the Italians (and the Uruguayans, and the English) are considered superior in all the ways listed above. They simply went at them, all over the field, contesting every inch of it, and ultimately scored way more goals than their opponents.

They were brave and they were rewarded.

Chile were brave yesterday vs. Brazil, a team that has now knocked them out of the last three World Cups. The strategic thing to do against the five-times world champions (who just happen to be playing at home, where they’ve not lost a competitive match since 1975) would be the practical, counter-attacking route. But Chile played their fellow South Americans toe-to-toe.

I think that, in general, this has been a particularly brave World Cup. The evidence is simple and straightforward: There have been lots of goals (the most in a group stage since 1958) and a remarkable predominance of open play.

In part, it’s the Brazilian ethos that has made them brave. How can you got to Brazil — the soccer nation that invented “flair”, that pissed way even more World Cups because they insisted on playing open, brave football — and not play open, attacking, “Samba” soccer? Forget the fact that this particular Brazil team is among the most “practical” the country has produced; it was chosen to grind out results rather than simply outscore its opponents (indeed, apart from Neymar, they appear to have a real striker problem; Fred and Jo have been next to useless).

But the Samba Ethos was formed decades before and will outlive this current Brazil squad. More than in any World Cup I can remember, teams came to this World Cup to win and look good doing it. Italy refused and couldn’t get out of the group. England flirted with the idea, gave it up and went home.

There are dangers to bravery. Portugal is going home because it continued to go forward after falling behind Germany and going down to 10 men. If they had hunkered down and kept that game 2-0, the Portuguese might ultimately have gone through. Instead, as they weren’t inclined to damage control, got drilled 4-0, and that goal difference sent the US to the round of 16 in their place.

Which is why today’s Sunday’s slate of knockout games is going to be so interesting. The Mexicans play like Chile, i.e. almost incapable of throttling back their pressure game all over the field. Surely the Mexican coaching brain trust, and the players themselves, understand the Netherlands can utterly shred that sort of adventurism.  To wit, a 2-0 plucking of Chile itself in the group stage, and a 5-1 embarrassment of reigning World Cup champion Spain, who didn’t even play that bravely, or openly, and still got dismantled.

And then we have brave Costa Rica taking on the most practical, disciplined side left in the tournament, Greece, who never play bravely but have a knack for eking out results against better teams. Indeed, they won a European Championship doing this, in 2004. This was perhaps the most remarkable underdog performance in the history of major tournament football, ever, and just 10 years removed from that experience, the Greeks are loath to switch strategies.

Will Costa Rica just fly at them and let the chips fall where they may? Here is a side brimming with confidence — but here is a side that is poised to produce the greatest sporting result, perhaps the greatest geo-political result (a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals) in its national history. Perhaps they temper the bravery and try to beat their opponents another way, lest they risk conceding an early goal and playing into the Greeks’ hands.

The choice is the Costa Ricans’ to make. This afternoon we will test the conventional wisdom, that fortune favors the brave.

Suarez: Warped, a Bit Peckish, but a Ban Doesn’t Fit

Suarez: Warped, a Bit Peckish, but a Ban Doesn’t Fit

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In the first 20 minutes of France’s mind-numbing but practical nil-nil draw Wednesday, Les Bleus central defender Mamadou Sakho delivered an elbow to the face of Oswaldo Minda during a corner-kick skirmish in front of the Ecuadorian goal. It was deliberate and on target. It went unnoticed by the referee and so, the game went on.

This not to excuse the act, but these things happen. When referees see such infractions, off the players go. The red card issued Wednesday to Antonio Valencia, Ecuador captain and Manchester United winger, was not exactly swift (the referee took almost 2 minutes to brandish it). But ultimately it was sure, because it was seen.

What Uruguay’s Luis Suarez did to Italy’s own King of Capers, Giorgio Chiellini, on Tuesday, was certainly a red-card offense. But like Sakho’s no less deliberate but ultimately more painful offense, it went unnoticed by the referee, Marco Rodriguez of Mexico.

Look, what Luis Suarez did was really weird, even more disturbing when you consider his track record: He’s now apparently chomped on three guys in his illustrious and notorious career (there have been charges of racist taunts, too, for the record).

But you can’t ban a guy for being a nut case. This last bite was no worse, in a soccer sense, than Sakho’s elbow to Minda’s kisser (which wasn’t seen, nor called by the ref) or Daniele De Rossi’s elbow to Brian McBride’s face at World Cup 2006, which was. Slapping Suarez with an after-the-fact ban (covering subsequent World Cup matches presumably) seems arbitrary, though FIFA seems determined to do something; on Wednesday it  “charged” Suarez with biting.

The fact that Suarez has bitten guys twice before, and was allowed to play in this competition (and all competitions for club and country in the buildup to Brazil 2014), argues against a ban. Biting an opponent is bizarre, but no more a rules infraction than elbows to the face or, in Valencia’s case, studs-up tackles over the ball.

One final word about Chiellini. Thick was the irony that it was he who played the foil here. The Italians are futbol’s champion practitioners of win-at-all-costs gamesmanship, and Chiellini pushes the limits of this dark genius further than any of the Azzurri. I wish FIFA kept records for the number of times players are whacked in the chest, inadvertently or otherwise, and fall to the ground clutching their faces. Chiellini would lead the league, as it were.

There’s a great Monty Python sketch that begins with a pan of some uninhabited meadow. The viewer is informed that, in fact, there are 40-odd people in this shot, including Mr. E.R. Bradshaw of Napier Court, Black Lion Road, London SE 14. The film’s narrator invites Mr. Bradshaw to show himself, which he does. At which point, he is shot dead.

“This demonstrates the value of not being seen,” the narrator points out.

Suarez bit another guy. The ref didn’t see it. It was Chiellini, which  seems fitting. Next game, please.