PLAYING THE GAMEProfessional foul
We were watching this English Premiership soccer match (no names, no pack drill) on TV. One of the goals had been under attack for a while, and most players had gravitated towards the busy end of the field. Suddenly one of the defenders cleverly broke out and stormed towards the opposite goal. It seemed that he was heading for a sure goal, when one of the opposing team raced back to tackle him. He was about to reach him, but lost steam and the break-away player was free to go on and score — and as he drew away to finish what he had so cleverly started, the tiring attacker stuck his foot out and deliberately tripped him. Down he came. The move was aborted. The referee blew his whistle and flashed an angry yellow card at the culprit. And the game went on ...
One of the commentators wondered whether that should have been a red card, but his colleague defended the yellow-carded tripper: “When you think of it,” he said, “he had to do that. It was the only way to stop the goal.”
* * *
Pete had taken one of the kids to the dentist, so Wendy was alone on duty in the Dairy Road house, one of a number of group homes dotted around the area and run by a local agency. She had played some games on the lawn with a few of the kids after tea and now went inside to attend to other tasks, including starting supper. Antonio came in with her. He hadn’t enjoyed the games and constantly complained about everything, eventually sitting infuriatingly in the middle of the lawn, sulking. As Wendy went into the kitchen he again followed her and climbed up on to the window sill, sat sideways and buried his head in his knees.
“Toni, I’ve asked you not to put your feet up on the window sill. Why don’t you come down and sit on one of the seats?”
“Yourself!” he said enigmatically.
Just then Mike, an off-duty care worker from the agency came in and said hello. Wendy greeted him while Antonio ignored him.
“I heard Pete had to go out,” said Mike. “You need a hand?”
“I’m just getting some vegetables started,” said Wendy. “I’m nearly finished. We can have a cup of tea in a minute.”
Mike turned to Antonio. “How’re you doing, Toni?” he asked.
The boy gave no answer.
Mike knew better than to say more. He didn’t work in this unit, and didn’t know the score regarding the status of the various youngsters in it.
Wendy, however, snapped. She walked across to Antonio and let him have it with both barrels. “I’ve had about as much of you this afternoon as I can take, young man,” she began. “You’ve been a pain right though the games we were playing, you’ve done what I asked you not to — and now you’re being just plain rude to a visitor.”
She went up to the window and grabbed the boy’s shoulder, pulling him down off the sill. “Now you can just get your hide to your room and stay there until dinner time.” A slight pause, and then: “Now, this instant, GO!” she roared.
The boy continued to look down at the floor, turned, and walked out of the kitchen. A minute later, rather in contrast to his slow departure, they heard his door bang shut.
* * *
The red card vs. yellow card debate didn’t end with the TV commentators at the soccer match. All three of us in the room had different opinions, though we would all happily acknowledge bias relating to which team we supported! Premier League soccer has that effect on everybody!
Alan said he thought the referee was right. “The yellow card means ‘Do something like that again and you’re off the field!’ ” he reminded us. “And that’s as far as I would go. Get on with the game, I say. After all, this is men’s soccer!”
I went with the red card argument. I saw the tripping as a particularly cynical act. “That was, in my opinion, a professional foul. I mean, he did that just to prevent a clearly scorable goal. For me, it’s a red card,” I insisted.
“Well, said Alan,” triumphantly. “I may agree. But just read the rules next time you make a judgement. A professional foul may be punished with either a yellow card or a red card! The ref chose a yellow card, and it’s his call. Live with it!”
Alan’s son, Max, was differently placed. Here were Alan and I, well into late middle-age, a famous life-stage for know-it-all armchair sports, while Max, in his mid-twenties, actually played real-live soccer in a senior league every week. He wasn’t going to go for a little-old-lady interpretation of the rules.
We looked across at him expectantly. Here would come the definitive culturally relevant opinion.
“You want to know what I think?” he asked.
“Well ...?” we both said in unison.
“What I would do ... is remove the man from the game of soccer for life.”
We were aghast.
He continued: “When someone is playing soccer at that level, or any level, I would expect them to be playing the game in terms of the skills and the strategies of soccer. That player used the tactics of a street fighter, a thug. He might as well have pulled out a gun and shot the other player. He wasn’t using the skills of the game. I feel ashamed that a premiership player is demonstrating to kids a way of ‘playing the game’ which has nothing to do with what they are being taught about soccer. He is not playing soccer. He wants to win at any cost. He doesn’t want to play soccer. Go and do something else, do kick-boxing, rob banks. Life-time ban!”
If a violin had started playing I would have burst into tears. We were learning a lesson from a twenty-something kid which we should have known better at our age. No pussy-footing about a controversial issue. No forgetting what we were here for. No betrayal of an altogether marvelous and worthy game. We sat in silence and admiration.
* * *
As for Wendy and Antonio, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been a child and youth care worker long enough to know that we can run out of steam and run out of better ideas. I know that we can be worn down by troubled kids who are generally singing from a different hymn-sheet from ours. And I know that when a colleague has to be away and we are alone with a group of kids, we need to conserve our energy so as to deliver ‘the greater good for the greater number’ of kids ...
But then I should have noticed that Toni was distressed throughout the afternoon, preoccupied by more than the attraction of the fun and games we were all enjoying. I should have noticed how he followed me inside, and then followed me into the kitchen, and even prodded and poked my attention by his not-all-that-serious crime of sitting on a window sill. And that he was risking quite a lot when he ignored Mike’s polite attentions ...
Okay. I would have given her a red card. It was a professional foul for someone who knew that she was working with troubled kids. It was a professional foul for not recognising a whole string of warning signs from a little guy who had himself run out of repertoire and resources. My red card would have said “Leave the field of play for the rest of the afternoon, go off and regather yourself ...”
I’d hate to think what Max would have thought.