December 2, 2009

Yet Another Reason why Soccer will Never Succeed in the States

Most Americans won't recognize this image. Nearly all Europeans will instantly recognize this image. This picture was snapped of French national team member Thierry Henry taking part in the ultimate transgression - a handball to maintain possession of the ball. Henry then passed the ball to teammate William Gallas who scored the tying goal against Ireland, allowing France, instead of Ireland, to advance to the 2010 World Cup. Ireland sought all sorts of sanctions, including a replay of the game. Despite attempted bribes with pints of Guinness, the requests were turned down. France is off to the World Cup.

That's the back story. Is it over? No. Is it because Ireland continues to appeal? No. It is because FIFA, the International Soccer Governing Body, is opening an investigation into Thierry Henry for unsportsmanlike conduct. Sadly, this is not without precedent, according to ESPN:

FIFA rejected the use of extra match officials at the 2010 World Cup on Wednesday, instead opening a disciplinary case against France's Thierry Henry for a handball in the World Cup playoff against Ireland.... The independent disciplinary panel has the authority to impose a one-match suspension on Henry, which would take effect at the start of the World Cup in June. In a similar case last year, Italian authorities banned Fiorentina forward Alberto Gilardino for two matches after he scored with his forearm in a Serie A match. The league ruled that Gilardino was unsportsmanlike for not acknowledging the handball during a 3-1 win over Palermo.

About the only parallel to what soccer expects Henry to do is when the PGA expects golfers to turn themselves in for taking improper lies or signing defective scorecards. And big surprise, golf is at best a niche sport in America.

Americans don't expect Tim Duncan to tell the refs in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals that the ball really went out of bounds off him instead of off of Kobe Bryant, as originally called. Americans don't expect Derek Jeter, in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, to own up to missing a tag of second base on a stolen base attempt when he has been called safe. Americans don't expect Brett Hull to own up to the fact that in overtime of the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals he knocked the game winning goal into the net while his foot was illegally in the crease. Americans don't expect Troy Polamalu to let the referee know that in the AFC Championship Game he actually trapped a ball against the ground on an interception when replay was inconclusive. Duncan, Jeter, Hull, and Polamalu are all generally recognized as upstanding sportsmen in their respective sports.

Simply put, the American sports creed is "Just win baby." We don't consider any of the above examples "bad sportsmanship," even if our favorite team is the aggrieved team. We are pissed off at the officials for missing the call. But we don't blame the offending athlete for not throwing his own teammates and fans under the bus, all in the name of some foggy notion of sportsmanship. It's not quite cheating and it's not quite honesty. And that's quite alright with American sports fans.


gpb said...

"Most Americans won't recognize this image."

Seriously? It was Sportscenter for two days after it happened. I might have seen something on CNN about it too. I suppose people can check out during the show or not read soccer articles but ignorance wasn't from lack of opportunity.

The real problems are twofold. One is that one official made a decision that determined the outcome of the game and who went to the cup. The other is that FIFA is being dated, refusing to look at replay or add extra officials.

I don't quite know how replay would work in soccer. I think adding another official should be sufficient since soccer doesn't have a lot of down time in play like other sports to support replay.

As for sportsmanship, I don't recall if Henry admitted to it during the game but I know he did afterward. Though the European creed may be different, I bet his teammates would have been equally pissed if he confessed to it during the game too and they didn't make the Cup.

Besides, the FIFA notion of sportsmanship is a joke when players take obviously pathetic dives to hope for a call. It's worse in many cases than the practiced charges in basketball. If they start yellow carding fake dives, I might respect their thoughts on sportsmanship here.

Brien said...

I think the big issue here is that FIFA is calling it a "sportsmanship" inquiry instead of a "cheating" inquiry. The accusation was not only that the call was bad, but that Henry intentionally handled the ball into the goal.

There's a big difference between not calling a foul on yourself and intentionally cheating.

Anonymous said...

1) Many if not most sports fans will recognize that statement because it got massive play on ESPN.
2) Golf is at best a niche sport? Hmmm, Tiger Woods? Doesn't he play golf? Just because golf isn't as popular as football, baseball, or basketball doesn't make it a niche sport. The U.S. still produces premier golfers, which is not true about soccer.

"ben" said...

Aside from the nitpicking (the elusive definition of "niche," the questionable statement that Americans would be oblivious to the story ESPN rammed down our throats), can we at least agree on the basic premise of the post?

There is no parallel for something like this in a United States team sport. It's such a ridiculous notion to (most) U.S. sports fans. And while I agree with you, Brien, that there's a difference between intentionally cheating and unintentionally cheating, I don't think that's relevant to Jeremy's main point. There's often attempted on-field/in game cheating that goes on (e.g. holding in football) and we still put the onus on the refs to get the call right.

J-Red said...

I think there is a parallel. The NFL is now consistently fining players for hits that did not earn a penalty flag during the game. In effect, they're saying "Even though this was missed, we're still going to punish you."

The fundamental difference is that we don't reward the NEXT opponent by imposing discipline that could affect the outcome of the game. That's the point I think Jeremy missed.

There are, of course, suspensions in all four major sports for acts that take place on the field/court/ice. Those acts a) almost always occur outside the normal action of the game and b) are normally subject to discipline at the time they occur, but the allowed in-game penalty is insufficient.