Professionals must remember only the ref can stop a match
Professionals need to remember that only the referee can stop a match, even when a player goes down injured
Whatever happened to "play to the whistle"? By taking matters into their own hands and stopping play, players are only putting themselves in the dock, on the block, and up the proverbial garden path. When a player apparently suffers an injury during play, referees are the only ones who have the authority to decide whether or not to stop a match. Players ignore this at their peril.
Tuesday's controversial goal by Shakhtar Donetsk against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League is a prime example. When a Nordsjaelland player went down injured, players voluntarily stopped play in the middle of the park. After the player had been taken off the pitch to receive treatment, the referee restarted play with a drop ball. It was uncontested and Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Willian gently booted the ball back to his opponents' half. However, Willian's teammate, Brazilian Luiz Adriano, apparently did not realise a sporting gesture was being played out, and so ran on to the "pass" to the amazement of the static Nordsjaelland defenders, rounded the dismayed goalkeeper, and promptly scored.
Uefa has now charged Adriano with unsporting behaviour and he could be suspended for their next Champions League match.
There are many levels of inquiry here, and one easy solution. First, in return for what most people perceive to be an unsporting goal, why did the Shakhtar Donetsk defenders refuse to allow their opponents a walk-in goal immediately after that misunderstanding?
"Half their team seemed to think [it would be fair], but the other half didn't," Nordsjaelland captain Nicolai Stokholm said. At that moment, Shakhtar Donetsk had no leader to tell the whole team what they should do. This would explain the team's mixed stance.
It also explains how seriously some players take their profession, with many having differing interpretations of how sporting behaviour fits into the game, if at all.
Second, why was Adriano seemingly unrepentant about his actions? "It was instinct, I see the ball and I dribbled and I scored a goal," he said. Adriano is basically saying a professional soccer player is supposed to win matches. Does this mindset override sporting gestures such as stopping play for an injured opponent?
Third, why did players stop play in first place? How did they know the player was injured and not faking injury? Are players trained in medical triage? With all these risks, why would professional players compromise themselves by taking up the referee's responsibility? It's not simply a matter of being sporting, since stopping play can also be trying to gain "brownie points" in the public eye.
And, why did the players not kick the ball out of play? They just stopped and looked around aimlessly, which reveals they really did not know what to do and were probably seeking guidance. Therefore, they should always "play to the whistle".
Players stopping play first came to prominence at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when Belgium played Spain in the quarter-finals. Even in the baking summer heat, and having to play extra time, whenever a player from any team went down his opponents would refuse to take advantage, and instead opted to kick the ball out of play. This was genuine and sincere "fair play".
But things have moved on since then, most notably professionalism and monetary rewards have brought increased cynicism and gamesmanship to the modern game.
This is why it is important to let one person, the match referee, decide whether or not to call a halt when a player is apparently injured. Referees will stop play only if, in their opinion, a player is seriously injured. A serious injury is something of the magnitude of a broken limb. However, judging by many players' reactions, it would seem a little knock or slap is plenty enough to stop a match.
At the amateur and parks level, stopping the game works beautifully for almost any injury, either real or apparent. But at the competitive and professional level, it is best left to the man in the middle to decide whether or not to stop play. This prevents players from duping opponents.
Remember the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain? No love was lost in this ultimately competitive match. With Spain eventually taking a 1-0 lead during extra-time, the Netherlands were frantically trying to find the equaliser. In the 120th minute, Spain's Fernando Torres pulled up apparently with a hamstring injury. The sporting thing to do would have been to kick the ball out of play. History shows the Netherlands did not give a fig about sportsmanship, as they continued to attack Spain's goal.
This week's lesson: At the professional level, sportsmanship is for suckers.