by Paul Gardner
I return to the worrying tale of Eric Garcia, the young Man City defender severely injured last Wednesday by a violent collision with his goalkeeper, Ederson.
On Wednesday, when we last we saw Garcia, he was being stretchered off the field. Not, as I had assumed, to be rushed to the hospital. The hospital visit was delayed for a while, as Garcia received more treatment at the stadium (his treatment on the field, where he had briefly lost consciousness, had already lasted some 9 minutes).
Garcia did, eventually get to the hospital for the necessary tests. He spent the night there, and was released on Thursday. All is well, we’re told. He will be benched for six days (required by the Premier League’s concussion protocol) and can then return to action.
A happy ending, then? That is what I would like to report, but there remain aspects of this incident that give cause for concern. Everyone who has seen a video of the collision knows that Garcia took a tremendous wallop from Ederson. So how come there seemed, initially, to be no great rush to get Garcia to the hospital? And that 6-day no-action protocol requirement seems absurdly nugatory.
Somehow, the actions being taken, and the general attitude of everything “being OK” do not correspond to our recently acquired knowledge of the mid- and long-term harm that concussion can cause.
I’ll exempt from criticism the action taken, on the field, by the Man City medical staff (there were eight - or was it nine? - of them) which seemed exemplary. But elsewhere there were clear signs that the incident was not receiving the serious attention that it should get.
In Thursday’s media reports, I found the collision variously described as sickening, thumping, a horror clash, nasty, horrible-looking, violent, heavy, full-force. Despite this universal condemnation, several of the reports termed the clash “accidental.” No one was to blame, it was just one of those things ... which means, of course, that there is nothing to analyze.
Arlo White, NBC’s play-by-play man on the telecast -- and usually reliably objective when allotting blame for foul play -- was annoyingly tentative as he perched himself precariously on the fence. He called the collision “awful, awful,” then “horrendous”, but concluded with this flagrant back-slider: “a violent ... accidental ... collision.”
Accidental? In the sense of being unintended, presumably. But the definition of accident embraces negligence. That is what we have here. Big time. We have seen these collisions before, plenty of them. They are caused -- virtually all of them -- by violently reckless play from the goalkeeper. Of course the goalkeeper does not intend to seriously hurt anyone -- but he is behaving in a way that makes injury quite likely.
So, I’m blaming Ederson? Yes and no. Mostly no. He acted “with disregard to the danger to or consequences for, an opponent” (p 103 in the rulebook). There is the technicality that Garcia was not an opponent. Clearly the rules are at fault here: it cannot be that the intention of the rule is to deem that knocking your opponent unconscious is a yellow-card foul, but not a foul at all if you render a teammate senseless.
The rule needs to be re-written, along the lines of the definition of “playing in a dangerous manner” (p 107) -- action that “threatens injury to someone (including the player themself).”
A simple rewording that could, should, have been made ages ago, but we all know the sloth like speed with which IFAB moves.
Ederson acted, I believe, entirely against the game’s rules -- against the spirit of the rules, and against specific injunctions against violent play.
There is absolutely nothing in the rules that allows goalkeepers to simply charge and jump into people, often with fists and knees raised. Such behavior is forbidden, and any non-goalkeeper indulging in it can expect severe punishment.
Why, then, are goalkeepers allowed to get away with it? There is surely no longer any secret about this. A practice has been allowed to grow in soccer of turning a blind eye to goalkeeper violence. Should you entertain any doubts about that, let me whisk you back just a few years, to Germany in 2017. A Bundesliga game between Wolfsburg and Stuttgart. Wolfsburg goalkeeper Koen Casteels races off his line and -- knees raised -- jumps heavily into Stuttgart’s captain, Christian Gentner. The collision results in Gentner being rushed to the hospital with eye socket fractures, a broken nose, a fractured upper jaw, and a severe concussion.
Wait. It gets worse. The referee did nothing. No call, no foul. His inaction was later supported by Hellmut Krug, the German referee boss, who decided that the non-call was “reasonable.” Talk about getting away with it.
The goalkeeper’s brutal physical assault -- for which any field-player would surely have been instantly red-carded -- is viewed as acceptable, the blind-eye is turned.
The appalling callousness of that attitude, is still very much alive. NBC’s Arlo White made it clear that he evidently thinks that way, as he explained -- “Ederson had to come for it ... Once he was coming for that ball, he wasn’t backing out of it. That was his first job, to clear the danger.”
That can only be seen as a rather lame attempt to let Ederson off the hook. The first part of it is wrong (Ederson did not have to go for the ball, Garcia was already in a position to deal with it); the second part is yet another repetition of the “only doing his job” excuse. It is frequently uttered as a compliment, with an implied “see our brave goalkeeper, throwing himself into a dangerous melee, clearing everyone out of his way.”
I did not detect any of that sort of triumphalism in White’s delivery. If anything, he sounded quietly apologetic. I hope I’m getting that right.
Ederson’s violence is reprehensible, of course, but the roots of that violence go deeper. Ederson -- and most current goalkeepers -- play that way because they are allowed to. The “blind-eye” policy is at work. Ederson can feel quite sure that referees will not punish him.
So ... blame the ref? Of course they’re complicit, and they are the ones who apply the blind eye. But, like the keepers, they are only doing their job. Applying the rules in the way that they know is acceptable.
In theory, a top referee could decide that his conscience no longer permits him to apply the blind eye. He could start giving out red cards to violent goal keepers (something that can definitely be justified, even under the current rules). And he would no doubt find his refereeing assignments withering away.
No individual referee is ever heard expressing -- publicly -- an opinion that runs counter to accepted practice. Thus, the blind-eye policy has been allowed to take root in the sport’s refereeing circles because those circles have been operating for decades without leadership.
Punishing referees who step out of line is a poor substitute for leadership. The leadership that is needed should, logically, come from IFAB -- the committee that likes to call itself the “guardian” of the sport’s rules (it maintains a ridiculous insistence on calling them “laws,” another sign of its fuddy-duddy approach).
For about one hundred years, the IFAB did such a good job of guarding the rules, that changes (i.e. updating) to the rules rarely happened. That hermetic approach began to crumble in the 1960s, as the coaches, along with the sport’s increasingly influential commercial branch, began to throw their weight around.
The coaches campaigned for -- and got -- coaching from the sidelines, substitutes, and made a so-far unsuccessful plea for sin bins. While the marketing guys pressed for more television influence and made sure that only official logos and emblems were to be seen.
But leadership? A voice that would say, clearly, “We want the sport to move in this direction (or not to move in this direction), nothing like that ever appeared.
And it never will appear from the moth-eaten IFAB, still structured in the way the Victorians designed it back in 1886. Changes have been made recently -- at last -- and the arrival of the young and enterprising Lukas Brud as Secretary is a promising move. I wish him luck. He has a lot of dead wood to cope with.
I’m blaming, then, a structure that has always wanted to operate torpidly and in secrecy, has never kept in touch with sporting and social changes, and -- in this specific case -- has allowed a pernicious blind-eye policy to grow to the point where it has become a danger to the integrity of the sport, and a very palpable threat to the health and safety of its players.
The blind-eye policy of ignoring goalkeeper violence should be abandoned immediately because it is causing serious injuries. Surely that alone is reason enough for action. If not, then the threat of a major lawsuit against the sport -- it would be a class action suit -- should surely cause some serious pondering by soccer’s big-wigs.