Dougherty: Is Soccer still the Gentleman’s Game?

Soccer is widely recognized as the “beautiful game.” But can it be called a “gentleman’s game.” I’m not so sure.

As I look back over the just completed World Cup, there are plenty of examples of good, sporting behavior. The most obvious that come to mind is when a player – competing for a world championship, mind you – intentionally kicked the ball out of play so medical staff could tend to the needs of an opposing player.

We witnessed this dozens of times during the month-long event. When the injured player is treated, the opposing team returns the ball to the team that played it out of bounds, and play resumes. Polite applause from the crowd follows, and soccer fans rest in the warm glow that their sport is competitive, in a gentleman-like fashion.

But is it?

Let’s look at the example above. During the World Cup, there was at least a 50-50 chance that the aforementioned injured player really wasn’t all that hurt. A man carrying a black bag, running alongside another four men hauling a stretcher, arrives at the scene and pulls out a can of Super Spray and covers the “injured” player in a fog. For all we know, it could be Raid or Scrubbing Bubbles.

The next thing we do know is that the player is up on his feet, bouncing around on the sideline waving at the referee to allow him back on the field – as if it’s the ref’s fault the player rolled on the ground as if a sniper had taken him out with a .30 aught six.

Is this gentlemanly behavior?

Remember the round of 16 game, in which the United States fell to Ghana, 2-1? In the closing minutes, two Ghana players moaned and rolled on the ground as if the world’s largest kidney stones had sprouted from their stomachs. Coincidentally, their theatrics took valuable minutes off the clock – certainly more than the measly few that were added as “injury time.”

Amazingly, both players were 100 percent fit for their quarterfinal game a few days later against Uruguay. A miracle, it seems. But certainly not gentlemanly.

And there were so many instances of phony calls of “It’s out on them!” that I lost count. This is when a player knows he touched the ball last, raises his hand as if to say, “Ours!” One must assume he’s hoping the referees didn’t see it. After all, there’s no penalty at stake. Just the player’s integrity.

Perhaps Ghana was repaid for its cynical final minutes of the U.S. game when, against Uruguay, Luis Suarez intentionally used his hands to stop a clear goal for Ghana with seconds left in the game. Oh, Suarez isn’t a goalkeeper. But he stopped the shot with his mitts anyway.

In a sane world, the referee would have awarded the goal, and ejected Suarez for intentionally handling the ball in the goal area. But the FIFA Laws of the Game don’t give the referee such authority – all he could do was send off Suarez, and award Ghana a penalty kick. With the game knotted at 0-0 and no time on the clock, the kicker shot high and missed, and Uruguay went on to win in a penalty kick shootout.

For many, Suarez is a hero for intentionally breaking the rules. Machiavelli would be proud. But the act of a gentlemen?

Then, of course, there was the final between Spain and Master Kim’s Martial Arts Class, aka, The Netherlands. Two Dutch players — Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, the man who broke American Stuart Holden’s leg earlier this year in a “friendly” match – could have been ejected in the first 25 minutes against Spain. Van Bommel came from behind and crushed Andres Iniesta, while de Jong leaped in the air and drove his metal studs in the chest of Xabi Alonso (just check YouTube for the video).

The game featured 14 yellow cards along with the red card shown to John Heitinga of – yep, The Netherlands. Nine of the cards went to the Oranje. (I founds this particularly disappointing, as I am a long-time fan of Dutch soccer).

Soccer can be a gentleman’s game. I have seen players tell a referee the ball went out on them, and the official changed his mind to get it right. I have seen coaches tell a ref to go to a drop ball, instead of a free kick in their favor, when a young girl was simply protecting her face with her hands when the ball hit them.

We even witnessed The Netherlands on Sunday do the gentlemanly thing. A Spain player was hurt, Spain kicked the ball out of bounds to stop play… but when the Dutch player went to return the ball, he accidentally launched it toward goal, forcing Spain’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, to tip the ball away. A simple act of gentlemanly conduct turned into a corner kick for The Netherlands.

However, Robin van Persie did the right thing by waving his Dutch teammates away, then played an easy pass to Casillas.

Bad sportsmanship averted, thanks to a gentleman.