Today and tomorrow will feature the second legs of the Champions League semi-finals. In both semi-finals, the home team will be trying to protect a 2-0 lead, which is about as safe a lead as you can expect at this stage of the competition. The only drama of these two matches (I hope) will be the competition in today’s all-Spanish match.
Today’s match features arch-rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. Compared to these two clubs, rivalries between American sports teams and colleges seem quaint. While the level of vitriol between the supporters of the Old Firm is probably higher, El Clasico stands out because of the rich history of the two clubs. Between them, Barcelona have dominated Spanish soccer. Real Madrid’s history in the Champions League is superior but even that adds to the rivalry as some argue that Real’s early Champions League dominance was built on a player that was stolen from Barcelona.
The saying “styles make fights” is usually applied to boxing but it is equally valid for soccer. Today’s match features the best passing team in the world in Barcelona against the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. (Not that Real isn’t talented, just not Barcelona talented.) Barcelona’s eight point lead in La Liga and recent 5-0 destruction of Real may have made the outcome semi-final a foregone conclusion but it was at this stage of last year’s competition that Mourinho’s even more pragmatic Internazionale Milan ousted Barcelona. So there was hope for a thrilling tie. Alas, Barcelona extinguished that hope last week in another master class of passing and movement and possession.
The only interesting thing going into today’s match is that Real Madrid has spent the last six days talking about Barcelona’s master class in cheating. According to Real, the Barcelona players repeatedly faked injuries in order to get the referee to penalize Real Madrid players. Putting aside the irony of one Spanish team accusing another of play-acting (and one that features Ronaldo at that), it has made things more interesting going into the second leg. Real went so far as to post video evidence on their official website showing various cases of simulation by the the Barcelona players. This all sets up for either a classic match or, more likely, a match which gets very nasty once Real Madrid determines that they can’t overcome the deficit.(My father’s favorite phrase “quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” comes to mind.)
I’m not so American-centric to say that play-acting does not go on in American sports. Baseball players act like they caught the ball or made the tag, basketball players embellish it when they take a charge, golfers complain about cameras going off when they shank a tee shot. But diving and faking serious injury is more important to soccer than these other examples. One could refer to the American examples as “gamesmanship”. In soccer, it’s just the way things are, and its encouraged by the governing bodies.
At present, the highest levels of soccer do not use goal-line technology to determine if there was a goal or not. There is no replay review of close decisions. And the best part of it all, on a field that is longer and wider than a football field, one referee is supposed to be able to cover enough ground to watch what all twenty-two players are doing. (Unless, of course, it’s an important Champions League match involving Barcelona in which case at least one opposing player will be dismissed.)
American football has seven officials to monitor a game that moves much slower and is much more predictable than soccer. The soccer referee also has two linesman whose primary responsibility to monitor offiside violations (and often fail to do even that) and a fourth official on the sideline whose primary responsibilities are to hold up a board showing the numbers of substitutes or the amount of added time, and also to remind the coaches to say in their respective technical areas. It is an example of the hubris of the lords of soccer that they won’t take more steps to address the rampant cheating in the game. In fact, the lords of soccer have been conspicuously quiet since last week’s match. (No doubt Michel Platini would have weighed in if the controversy involved an English team play-acting.)
So there is no punishment for being taken off on a stretcher as if the future of your career is in doubt and then running back onto the pitch a minute later. There is no punishment for holding your face when an opposing player elbows you in the stomach. None of these things are punished and this only leads to more players employing these tactics. It makes it hard as a fan to watch these matches and take them seriously. We watch because we want to see the best try and do their best while someone else tries to (legally) stop them.
That today’s match will likely degenerate into a contest about who can act hurt more realistically is sad. The biggest reason that this should matter to the lords of soccer is the most important reason of all: money. There is money to be made by generating interest in soccer in the United States, lots of it. To date, most American fans don’t care for the play-acting as we were not raised in that environment. No doubt we’ll get there one day but until then we want to see two teams going at it honestly. So why shouldn’t the lords of soccer do something to reduce this behavior? After all, what highly-placed soccer official doesn’t like money?