J’accuse!!. . .

By Paul Gardner

I have an accusation to level at the sport of soccer. Against FIFA, IFAB, the international confederations, the national federations – in fact all the governing bodies of the sport, everywhere in the world. Plus all referees.

Consider. . .

Germany. September 17 2017. Wolfsburg goalkeeper Koen Casteels races off his line and jumps heavily into Stuttgart’s captain, Christian Gentner. Casteels leads with a raised knee. The knee crashes violently into Gentner’s head. Seconds later, Gentner is sprawled on the ground with eye socket fractures, a broken nose, a fractured upper jaw, and a severe concussion. Almost certainly, his life was saved by his team doctor, who raced on to the field to prevent Gentner from choking on his own tongue.

Injury of Christian Gentner – here with Koen Casteels
Football – Bundesliga: VfB Stuttgart vs VfL Wolfsburg, Stuttgart, Germany – 16 Sep 2017
Photo: Hofer Christian/action press/REX/Shutterstock (9065275y)

A horrifying moment. Gentner was rushed to hospital. But what did soccer – in the person of the referee – do? In a word, nothing. The referee made no call. His inaction was backed up by Hellmut Krug, the German referee boss, who decided that the non-call was “reasonable.”

There, in those few horrifying seconds, lies the essence of my accusation. That the soccer powers-that-be and their referees, by not enforcing their own rules, are guilty of knowingly exposing players to serious injuries. To which can be added a further charge of gross dereliction of duty, in that the accused have totally failed to take any measures that would at least reduce the frequency of these injuries. While the referees’ refusal to take any action is officially deemed “reasonable.”

At the heart of this accusation lies the goalkeeper. More specifically, the way in which goalkeepers are currently permitted to operate. Permitted at the organizational level by all those governing bodies, and at the practical, field, level by referees worldwide. Though “permitted” does not tell the whole story – “encouraged” comes closer.

There are two types of play in which goalkeepers are allowed to indulge in aggressive actions that are almost bound to cause injuries.

They are permitted to do what Casteels did in the above example. To come racing forward to grab or punch high balls or crosses, to do so with a raised knee, which becomes a battering ram as they jump high into other players (it was estimated that Casteels had his knee 6ft. above ground level when he hit Gentner). I’ll stress immediately, that those “other players” might include their own team mates. Given that goalkeepers are usually the bulkiest players on a team, the injuries that they can cause are frightening.

Then there is that other goalkeeper specialty – diving at an opponent’s feet. Allowing a player to throw himself, head-first, into ground-level action where feet are likely to be moving swiftly and viciously . . . does that sound like a good idea? It does not. It is a horrendous idea. Does it take more than a moment’s thought to predict that the goalkeeper is putting himself in serious danger? That he is inviting trouble?

England. October 14 2006. Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech dives forward to grab a loose ground ball. At the same time, Reading’s Stephen Hunt races in, believing he can get to the ball first. In the inevitable collision, Hunt’s right knee smashes into Cech’s head. Cech is rushed to hospital where he has surgery for a depressed skull fracture. Later medical reports say he came close to losing his life.

Chelsea’s goalkeeper Petr Cech (C) lies injured in the first few minutes of the game after a tackle from Stephen Hunt (R) of Reading during the Premiership football match at The Madejski Stadium in Reading, 14 October 2006.
(Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve recalled two ugly incidents, both resulting in near-death experiences, both involving goalkeepers. These are not isolated examples. Goalkeepers aggressively charging into players, goalkeepers diving at feet – these are plays that occur in virtually every soccer game.

How have we reached this point where plays that are always  likely to involve serious injury are regarded as acceptable? Indeed, more than acceptable. These are actions for which goalkeepers are frequently praised. The bravery of goalkeepers who are ready to dive at an opponent’s feet is much admired, as is their determination to fling themselves into a crowd of players as they attempt to reach the ball.

Listen to Brad Friedel – an immensely experienced international goalkeeper – in his role as a TV expert, as he watches another goalkeeper smash into an opposing forward and leave him lying stunned on the ground: “That is outstanding goalkeeping . . . a big strong punch, big strong body, big collision . . . exactly what you want.”

Here’s ex-pro ‘keeper Andy Gruenebaum (Columbus Crew), turned TV analyst: He’s watching as yet another forward gets wiped out by a goalkeeper: “I think it’s great goalkeeping, but also unlucky for [the forward] to get in the way of that, but that’s what you’re taught to do, protect yourself, you don’t worry about them . . .”

It is not only goalkeepers who rhapsodise about the mayhem. Former Arsenal and England defender Lee Dixon, also now a TV guru, has his say: “If you’re going to come out as a goalkeeper you take everything in your way, you take the players, the ball . . .”  Another former England defender Danny Mills, also speaking
from the TV booth, had some advice for a goalkeeper who failed to get to the ball: “If he comes for that, he’s got to clean everything out.”

These are experienced players who have no doubts: goalkeepers are within their rights to “clean out” opponents (and team mates). The crude insensitivity of the comments is chilling. There seems to be little or no consideration of what might happen to the players who are cleaned out. Far from it, the violence inflicted is brushed aside. As I detailed above, Stuttgart’s Christian Gentner – a victim of a goalkeeper “clean out” – suffered appalling injuries, even came close to losing his life. Yet, in Gruenebaum’s opinion, a player creamed by an onrushing goalkeeper is simply unlucky, while Friedel seems almost to relish the brutality.

How long will it be before a player loses his life in one of these goalkeeper “collisions”? It has already happened, just four short months ago. A death that did not get widely publicized, no doubt because the player concerned did not play for a big club, or even in a fashionable league.

Indonesia. October 15 2017. The 38-year-old Choirul Huda played professionally as a goalkeeper – he was a much respected player who had been a member of his club Persela Lamongan for over 18 years. In his last game, just before half time, he raced forward to dive at the feet of an opponent, intending to smother the ball. Instead, he collided violently with another player. Huda was rushed to hospital where he died an hour later. The player who so severely injured him (chest trauma, head trauma and neck trauma, said the doctor) was a team-mate, trying to clear the ball. 

Choirul Huda of hometown club Persela in East Java being rushed away on a stretcher and taken to hospital after colliding with Brazilian midfielder Ramon Rodrigues during a match at Surajaya Lamongan stadium in Surabaya.
(Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A tragic episode, but one that – involving two team mates – confirms the indiscriminate violence of such incidents. The video is agonizing to watch as the doomed Huda crouches on the ground, unaware that he is struggling for his life.

How can such a thing happen on a soccer field? If this were an accident, maybe it could be excused. But it was not an accident. It was totally predictable, the direct result of soccer’s decades-long reluctance to face up to the reality of goalkeeper violence and to take measures to contain it.

There is an intriguing history here. I recall my first awareness  of goalkeepers in the 1940s, big smiling guys like Manchester United’s Frank Swift, soon to be followed in the 1950s by Manchester City’s Bert Trautmann and Russia’s Lev Yashin. We thought of them as Gentle Giants.

Maybe they were too nice? Possibly, for by the mid-1950s it seemed that goalkeepers were being victimized. In the 1956 Cup Final, Trautmann was badly injured diving at the feet of an opponent, and played the final 17 minutes with a broken neck; in the 1957 final Manchester United’s Ray Wood was roughly charged by Aston Villa’s Peter McParland, and had to relinquish his position to a field player. He stayed on the field, hobbling along out on the wing. But McParland went unpunished. He too stayed on the field, and scored both of Villa’s goals in a 2-1 win. In next year’s final Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse deliberately smashed into the opposing goalkeeper, Manchester United’s Harry Gregg, knocking him and the ball over the line. No foul. The goal was allowed. Bolton went home with the cup.

Change was inevitable. It was begun by the towering and gentlemanly Russian Lev Yashin, the first to start shouting at and organizing his defenders, to “impose” his presence. The days of the submissive goalkeeper were fading. Yashin certainly added importance – and a degree of dignity – to the goalkeeper’s standing, but that word, “imposing”, was ominous.

Slowly, unstoppably, the goalkeeper’s role grew. By 1982 the tables had turned. Now it was aggressive ‘keepers dishing out the violence, and it was their opponents who were getting hurt. That truth was horrifically exposed when Germany met France in the 1982 World Cup.

Spain. July 8 1982. World Cup semi-final. As French substitute Patrick Battiston (he has been on the field for only eight minutes) runs on to a pass at the edge of the penalty area, German ‘keeper Toni Schumacher comes racing towards him and – still at full speed – simply jumps high into him, leaving him sprawled on the ground, unconscious, pale, with only a feeble pulse. Michel Platini runs to help and later admitted he thought Battiston was dead. Battiston is stretchered off, taken immediately to hospital with damaged vertebrae, broken ribs and three teeth knocked out.

German goalkeeper Harald “Toni” Schumacher collides with France’s Patrick Battiston (3) during the 1982 France v Germany World Cup Semi Final.
Photo: DPA/PA Images

There exists no revealing video of Schumacher’s challenge, but for many it was, and remains, the most brutal foul ever seen on a soccer field. Violent goalkeeping had come of age. It was now permitted in a world cup semi-final, where it went unpunished. Schumacher stayed on the field, to make the crucial save in Germany’s penalty-kick shoot-out win.

The revolution started by Yashin was now producing a stream of large-sized exceptionally well-trained ‘keepers. Goalkeeper schools flourished, while virtually every pro team now employed a specialist goalkeeper coach. No other soccer position received this sort of attention. Individual coaches for strikers or for creative midfielders were not part of the football scene.

The ideal of the new goalkeeper was the Dane, Peter Schmeichel, a superb 6’3″ athlete who constantly yelled and screamed at his own defenders, and whose adventurous, ultra-athletic style was, at least, intimidating.

The full implications of a goalkeeper “imposing” himself began to appear, and they were not pleasant. In 2012 Tottenham’s French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris ran forward to punch away a high ball and simply smashed into Swansea’s Spanish forward Michu. The collision was spectacular – Michu was knocked up into the air, then crashed heavily to the ground, unconscious. The referee did not stop play immediately. Lloris’s post-game comment nicely sums up the sheer madness of the action: “I was terrified when I saw him [Michu] on the ground. I had to go for it, I had to impose myself.” Lloris – terrified by his own action, but feeling it was OK because he had to impose himself.

By 2012 the idea that goalkeepers could get away with blatant fouling – that they had to impose themselves – had taken root. Even Michu insisted that the collision was no one’s fault.

The utter absurdity of allowing goalkeepers to “impose” themselves was perfectly revealed – at the highest possible level – in the 2014 world cup final.

Brazil. July 13, 2014. World Cup final. Eleven minutes into the second half, with the score at 0-0, German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer – coming way out of his goal to punch the ball away – leaps into the back of Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain. With by now familiar results: his raised knee makes contact with Higuain’s head, and knocks him down. Referee Nicola Rizzoli awards Germany a free kick for a foul by Higuain.

Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (R) and Argentina’s forward Gonzalo Higuain (C) are watched by Germany’s defender Mats Hummels (L) as they compete for the ball during the World Cup final. (Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

As Higuain had his back to Neuer and was not moving towards him at the time of the collision, what foul had he committed? Could it be that, by 2014, merely being in a goalkeeper’s way was now a foul?

Referee Rizzoli evidently had an inkling that his call made no sense; a few days later he admitted to Corriere dello Sport that he got the call wrong. Well, half wrong. There was no foul, he now said, not by Higuain and certainly not by Neuer. Neuer had punched the ball out of play, so the restart should have been a throw-in to Argentina. For all the good it did him, and Argentina, Higuain was absolved . . . but Rizzoli could not go so far as to admit that Neuer was the true culprit.

The Neuer incident is of interest because it seemed to provoke a reaction – at long last – from the rule makers. When the 2016 rule book appeared, it included some new wording in Rule 12. Not a rule change, more a reminder of a rule that already existed: “All players have a right to their position on the field of play; being in the way of an opponent is not the same as moving into the way of an opponent.”

Possibly this reminder was prompted by Neuer’s challenge. But it was lost in a welter of changes and re-writes that featured in the 2015 rules. It has not stopped goalkeepers from imposing themselves. And the reluctance to penalize goalkeepers for foul play – for obvious foul play – continues.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of goalkeeper violence is that the two aspects I have raised – jumping into players, and diving at feet – are both clear offenses under the current rules. If field players, leading with a knee, jump forcefully into opponents, there can be no doubt that fouls would be called, yellow or red cards would be issued. But that almost never  happens when it is a goalkeeper who does the jumping.

Soccer must answer the question: Why? There is nothing in the rules that exempts goalkeepers from the rules against violent play. So why do referees systematically refuse to punish them? How is it that the notion that goalkeepers are allowed to “clean out” opponents is so widely accepted in the sport?

Trying to find an answer to that question opens up the most baffling and the most disturbing aspect of this problem. Goalkeepers know that their actions are causing serious injuries – not least to goalkeepers. Referees know that they are not enforcing the rules. Yet no voice is heard, from either group, to question the situation.

I need to make a point about the rules involved. Jumping violently into an opponent is a glaringly obvious foul. But diving at an opponent’s feet is not so obvious. The rule involved in this case is that covering “playing in a dangerous manner”. This is defined as “any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone (including the player themself) . . .”

The example usually cited to illustrate the point is that of a player who, in a tussle to win the all, stoops low to head it. He is the one who may get injured, may get kicked in the head, but he is the one guilty of the foul. His head does not belong down at waist level, that is where the feet rule. If a head at waist level is dangerous play, how can a head nearly at ground level (which is what always happens when ‘keepers dive at feet) not also be dangerous play?

The fact is that the rule against lowering the head has not been thought through. A forward who dives low in the goalmouth to head a goal is unlikely to be penalised, his goal will stand, and he will get the very same tributes for bravery that the goalkeeper receives. But the legality of the goal is doubtful.

In the two diving-at-feet examples I’ve already cited, the actions of Cech and Huda were, for sure, acts of bravery. But this is a foolhardy sort of bravery. It is a difficult and saddening point to make. Huda died, Cech almost did. But the point must be made that it was their own actions that made those injuries so likely.

I am saying that both Petr Cech and Choirul Huda were at fault, guilty of dangerous play. But it would be going too far to blame Cech and Huda. They were, after all, going about their job in a way that soccer and its referees say – quite irresponsibly – is permissible.

No rule change is necessary to remove the dire effects of goalkeeper violence from the game. An admission from FIFA and/or IFAB that they have not been enforcing their own rules would be nice, but that’s too much to hope for. A “clarification” of the goalkeeper actions vis–a-vis the rules and a stipulation that the rules must in future be enforced would do the trick.

It is simply inexplicable that soccer has failed to take such action. The regular examples of serious injuries to goalkeepers and to their opponents should surely be enough to demand action. There is another reason, less humane but possibly more cogent. A
legal reason. Soccer knows – it cannot not know – that serious head injuries are involved. Yet it does nothing to abolish or to at least lessen the frequency of such injuries.

Goalkeeper violence injuries are inevitably part of the wider issue of head injuries and concussions. An enormous amount of research has been done over the past decade into concussions. This must be known to FIFA (though one could be forgiven for wondering about that). Yet FIFA takes no action. Its “concussion protocol” is a joke, infrequently applied, so that it is the greatest rarity to see a player removed from a game on the orders of a doctor. In any case, the protocol is not formulated to prevent concussions, but rather to improve their treatment.

Sooner or later, soccer will find itself in court over one of these violent-play injuries or deaths. Its refusal to take any steps to reduce such injuries makes it highly likely that it will lose a well-presented case. And of course, other cases will follow. There will be plenty of them – the examples I have cited all involve professional players, mostly with top teams. But beyond them lie the millions of youth and amateur players who, as long as FIFA allows its own rules to be flouted, are being exposed to dangerous injuries.

Again, one wonders. Is FIFA really unaware of what has been happening to gridiron football (the NFL) in the USA? In 2012 this immensely rich and popular sport was hit with a class action lawsuit representing some 2,000 ex players claiming compensation for concussion-related injuries. The NFL’s immediate reaction was to treat the case as a frivolous move, and to seek its dismissal. But that attitude changed very quickly as the reality of the medical and legal evidence grew. Within a few months the NFL agreed to settle the case for $750 million and to donate $30 million for research. A federal judge then threw out the $750 million agreement, saying it wasn’t enough. A new agreement was announced in 2015 which is expected to cost the NFL around $1 billion.

The legal (and hence the financial) ramifications are immense, something for FIFA to worry about. But they are not my concern here. What I am looking for is a way to clean up the sport of soccer. A way to call a halt to goalkeeper violence. And, yes, a way to decrease the unhealthy influence that goalkeepers have come to exercise in the game itself.

Strictly applying the rules to goalkeepers will certainly mean major changes in the way that they play the sport, that is undeniable. But I stress that this does not mean revolutionary changes. The rules remain unchanged. For a start, “cleaning out” opponents would result in a call against the goal-keeper, and very likely a penalty kick call. So there would be very few cases of cleaning out. If diving-at-feet is called (as I maintain it should be) as dangerous play then the punishment would be an indirect free kick – probably in the penalty area, which is where ‘keepers do most of their diving. Here, I think, a rule adjustment would be helpful, calling for a penalty kick for this particular offense. Again, the threat of maximum punishment should banish the offense.

Goalkeepers, no doubt, will feel that making them obey the same rules that everybody else obeys will hamper their play. I suggest the two alterations to the goalkeeper’s playing style might be accompanied by another change designed to offer him more protection in the goal area. At the moment, the goal area (the six-yard box) has only a minor function. It should be designated as the goalkeeper’s territory, inside which he cannot be challenged. Something that might improve the quality of corner kicks and crosses, as dumping them in the 6-yard box would be an obvious waste of effort.

Reducing the area in which a goalkeeper can handle the ball should also be considered. Shrinking the penalty area to a 12-yard box might bring a bonus: referees, with fewer penalty kicks to call, might cease to look for reasons not to make the calls.

At the moment, the goalkeeper has become an over-protected species. I have spelled out above three cases in which goalkeepers have clearly committed fouls by jumping violently into opponents, and two cases in which goalkeepers, as a result of their own actions, were seriously injured. Yet in none of those cases was the goalkeeper called for a foul.

Which is bad enough, but it gets a lot worse with the realization that it is usually the victim of goalkeeper violence who gets punished. With that level of protection, goalkeepers will surely continue their violent play. Why would they change anything when they know that what they are doing is widely considered acceptable within the sport, and that referees, by routinely ignoring the sport’s rules, uphold that position?

If FIFA cannot bring itself to show concern at the unnecessary injuries its sport involves, even if it continues to feel safe ignoring the legal aspects of that attitude, there is still another argument that demands action.

The future of soccer depends on the worldwide enrolment of youngsters – i.e. enrolment in a sport that is showing itself oblivious to safety concerns. Will parents be eager for their sons or daughters to play a sport that appears unable to take concussions seriously? A sport that – the accusation cannot be repeated often enough – ignores its own rules (which are designed to reduce the level of rough play) and prefers to find it “reasonable” to allow alarmingly violent play.

So, while soccer dithers the ugliness continues . . .

England. November 28 2017. Adam Yates, a 34-year-old defender for Port Vale, a team in England’s fourth division, is playing in a reserve team game. He races to clear a loose ball. His goalkeeper also goes for the ball. The collision sends Yates to hospital with a fractured nose, cheekbones and eye sockets as well as a broken upper jaw and wrist. The team’s coach commented: “I have never seen, on a football pitch, someone get the extent of the injuries he has got . . . It is really bad luck for him . . .”

France. January 21 2018. Paris St Germain’s striker Kylian Mbappe – at age 19 considered one of the sport’s most exciting young players – races into the Lyon penalty area to control a bouncing through pass. Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes charges off his line and hurls himself at the ball. He succeeds in punching it away but smashes, chest high, into Mbappe and flattens him. Mbappe is treated on the field for several minutes before being stretchered off. The referee took no action.

It is time for FIFA to stop dodging its responsibility, and to take decisive action to protect its players. It must banish this sort of “bad luck” from soccer. This bad luck has nothing to do with luck. It is a direct result of soccer’s blatant failure to abide by its own rules.