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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Oh the Gaul

Susan Boyd

When a single soccer goal ends up being argued in publications as diverse as the Huffington Post, India Times, and Wall Street Journal, you know it's a big deal. Add the drama of a David and Goliath story and international intrigue to create a tsunami of blogs, editorials, and irate message boards. Wednesday Thierry Henry, a French player known for his grace on the field and his integrity off the field, clearly used his left hand to control the ball in the box and then play it to his teammate William Gallas which tied Ireland 1-1. Of the three on-field officials all were struck momentarily blind at the exact same moment. None of them saw the handball, and so the goal stood. To add insult to injury a further review of the play also shows that two French players were most likely off-side. So France went on to secure its berth in the 2010 World Cup and Ireland did not. Even Henry admitted that he had "unintentionally" handled the ball, but stated that since the referees didn't call the foul, he continued to play. He says he told the center ref immediately following the goal and let the captain of the Irish team know. He even suggested that a replay of the game would probably be the fairest way to handle the incident.

When Ireland approached FIFA to request several ways of rectifying the situation including replaying the game or outright awarding the victory and the World Cup berth to Ireland rather than France, FIFA's reply was swift and forthright: "The Laws of the Game state . . . The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final." Therefore the game stands. There was some precedent for replaying the game. In 2005 Bahrain played Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier. There the referee disallowed a successful penalty kick for Uzbekistan because of early encroachment of an Uzbekistan player into the penalty zone. The rules state that the penalty kick would then be replayed, but the referee instead awarded Bahrain a free kick. Therefore FIFA ordered the replay because the referee had not properly interpreted the rules.

All of this controversy leads to the inevitable two questions: What is fair? Should instant replay be introduced to soccer?  Fairness ends up being a relative concept whenever a variety of elements exist in determining fairness. Rules are established as a means of containing controversy by preempting challenges. FIFA says that what the referee sees is what happens on the field. If the referee can be persuaded by fellow referees that he or she missed something the decision can be changed so long as play has not restarted and the game is not over. Clearly (or perhaps blindly) what the referee observed was a legal goal. Since everyone agrees to play by the rules, then the rules have to be followed. Complicating the issue of fairness becomes the overall attitude that FIFA seeds brackets in such a way as to insure that the big guns get into the World Cup and the smaller nations suffer. So when a big gun wins because of an illegal play, the clarions of anger will be louder and more strident than ever.

Could this all have been avoided had there been instant replay? Probably, although the deeper issues of how FIFA conducts the qualifying rounds would still fester. Nevertheless, since YouTube, Huffington Post, and sport outlets all have the video of the handball playing endlessly on the internet, it's clear that proof of the foul exists. Would instant replay serve the game? As one who has tired of the fits and starts added to already fitful NFL games with the replays, I'd hate to see the flow of any soccer matches fall prey to instant replay technology. Considering how rarely the issue of extremely questionable play comes up, it seems an unnecessary addition to the game. FIFA might consider adding two end zone officials to watch specifically for fouls in the box that are difficult to see from behind and by ARs on the opposite side of the play when looking through a sea of legs, bodies, and goal posts. 

But truly I'm more in favor of just letting the controversy flare up, get its day in the light of public opinion and then tuck away in the history books for another two or three years until a new controversial goal snaps everything back into focus. I love watching Judge Judy. She's my guilty pleasure while I fold laundry. If I've learned anything, I've learned that occasionally the law ends up being unfair. The aggrieved party can't prove their case and so the clearly smirking and guilty thug ends up getting away with it. It hurts to lose when you know you should win, but then you move on and let it all go because there are new opportunities on the horizon that have much better outcomes.

I loved reading the Irish Herald's editorial about the event because of all the papers talking about this incident this was the one who had the most right to be angry. Yet the editor took the opportunity to point out some hard truths. "Why were we in the position where a disputed goal put us out of the World Cup?   It is not a popular thing to say in the current climate, but shouldn't we have scored the second goal to ensure our qualification? If we had done that there wouldn't be a word about Thierry Henry this morning." Exactly! How often do we tell our kids that they can't blame the weather, the field conditions, the dirty play of the opposing team, or the officiating for losing a game? Instant replay will never provide strong play and the will to win. Fairness will never be achieved 100 percent. So we have to muddle through and not try to achieve some perfect environment for play. Let soccer be what it is – a somewhat flawed arena in which we project our nationalism, our bravado, and our hopes.
 

Battery Park

Susan Boyd

The lead stories on Monday's Today show were, in order, Hurricane Ida, the Fort Hood shootings, and a female soccer player accused of rough play. The fact that in the midst of wars, economic concerns, and health reform, the manner of play in a soccer game would warrant the number three lead story on a national news show instantly piqued my interest.

For those of you unaware of this story here's a short recap. Last week BYU hosted New Mexico's Lobos women's team for a game. One Lobos player overstepped the boundaries of civilized play. Her behavior included kicking a ball full force right in the face of a downed player, punching another player in the back with her fist, and most horrifyingly yanking a player's pony tail so violently that her neck arched back and she collapsed on the ground. Did she ever get a card or at minimum a whistle? She was admonished just once with a yellow over the ball in the face. Otherwise all her actions went unnoticed and unpenalized. When the video of her actions hit YouTube and the national news, her coach suspended her from the team for an unspecified time and many in the public clamored for her suspension from the university. The player in question apologized for her behavior by stating that, "I let my emotions get the best of me in a heated situation." She knew she had chosen to behave badly.

We read stories like this all the time, and worse we personally witness violence in sports. For example, this fall I witnessed a player long after play had stopped stomp on a downed defender's head opening a wound that required five stitches. He was sent off with a red. French player and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane head butted two players in 2000 and 2006 respectively. He also was sent off with a red. Just recently a Rhode Island high school girls' soccer championship game turned into a brawl between the teams. The game was suspended. A club player last year was sucker punched as he walked off the field. The victim ended up in a coma with severe head injuries. Although no card was issued because the game was over. 

Assault and battery are legally defined as "the intentional and unjustified use of force upon the person of another, however slight, or the intentional doing of a wanton or grossly negligent act causing personal injury to another." Assault is also defined as "the threat of violence while battery is the actual act of violence resulting in injury" (Judicial Definitions, State of Massachusetts).   We excuse battery in the course of a sporting event because we accept it as a justifiable offshoot of the aggressive nature of the competition. In reality it's not. Sports have rules that carefully and constructively lay out the acceptable limits of behavior. Most sports don't tolerate excessive aggression or contact between players, and that is certainly true of soccer. Yet players consistently get away with extremely unacceptable violent behavior with little more than a card and possibly a one or two game suspension. Referees have limited ability to enforce anything further than sending a player off. The real police need to be coaches and the governing agencies of the sport. When a player is unnecessarily violent – and those instances should be clear to all who witness them – then a coach needs to exercise swift and serious consequences.

A case in point was a recent event between the University of Oregon and Boise State University football players LeGarrette Blount and Byron Hout respectively. Hout taunted Blount after the U of O lost to BSU and then tapped his shoulder in a mildly aggressive way. Blount retaliated by punching Hout and momentarily knocking him out. The U of O coach and AD both responded within hours of the event with a suspension of Blount from the football team. Blount's behavior was no more dangerous than that of the player who stomped on the defender's head in a soccer game. And at least Blount was directly provoked by Hout. But in the case of the soccer player only a red card was issued, he served a one game suspension, and was back to playing soccer without any further recourse. That's not right. While the letter of the law was followed, the spirit was certainly neglected. Players need to be held as accountable for their on-field actions as they are for their off-field actions. The same weekend as the head stomping incident, a student was suspended from school for kicking another student in the face during the course of a verbal argument. The injury required some stitches and no hospitalization. So it was on a similar level as the injury the soccer player administered. The only difference was that one injury occurred during the course of a verbal confrontation and the other occurred during the course of a sport competition. Both were unacceptable and excessive demonstrations of violence and both were preventable had the aggressor made the choice not to follow through with harm.

That is the key point. Any contact sport will have violent moments. It comes as a matter of course from heavy, moving objects flying about. But when the violence comes from an action outside the boundaries of play, then it is a choice made by a player. I'm talking about intentional infliction of injury by one player upon another and not those injuries which might be intentional, but come about due to reckless play such as tripping or sliding cleats up. Intentional injury, for this argument, comes when an aggressor has time to consider his or her actions and then decides to proceed.

The video of the Lobos player showed that all of her actions were a matter of choice and didn't arise from the flow of the game. For that reason and no others, she needs to be held accountable. Luckily nothing she did resulted in injury, but it could have. She was a poor representative of her team and played with poor sportsmanship not to mention the potential for injury. Better she got caught now rather than later with more serious results. Coaches need to be willing to address those actions and to let it be known that they won't be tolerated. Should injury occur they need to institute serious and extended consequences. We can't eliminate violence on the field, but we can certainly make sure that it is dealt with swiftly and seriously.  Knowing how gravely a coach will react might give a player extra pause in that moment he or she considers an attack. At least it will erase the false protection of the pitch as a place with different societal rules.
 

Who Needs It

Susan Boyd

I don't suppose most of us would pair up Sesame Street and The Rolling Stones in the same thought. But I did. This week is the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. Our oldest daughter was born just weeks after Sesame Street began, so you could say we grew up there together. In 1981 they added a brief character called Mick Swagger and the Cobblestones who sang their hit, "I Can't Get No Co-Operation." While I enjoyed the rendition, I had always thought there was a more appropriate Stones tune that reflected the moral lessons of growing up.  And when the 40th anniversary was celebrated on the Today Show, I thought about it again.  The chorus spoke perfectly to what I thought then and what I still think – "No you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need."

All too often we confuse want and need especially when it comes to our children. We wish they can have everything, and we do our best to make it happen which often leads to overspending or unreal expectations. Saying "no" to requests becomes so infrequent that our children can't comprehend that "no" exists. You've all been there in the store and witnessed a child (your child) having a complete meltdown at the checkout counter because she didn't get what she wanted.  We have advertisers and peer pressure making things worse. When the boys turned sixteen, most of their friends got new cars that were fancier than mine. Of course, I guess anything is fancier than a car with 250,000 miles and a permanent check engine light. But the message was clear – what the boys wanted fell far outside of what they, even what I, needed.

For example we get told that what our kids wear can affect how they play. While that fancy pair of bright green or red cleats create flash on the pitch, they can't provide any assurance of skill. Most cleats are a case of want over need, otherwise why would manufacturers design and build new, outrageous options each year. At $200 a pair, cleats are an extravagance that can't be supported by outcome, although both our boys were adapt at making that argument. Lighter cleats, wider cleats, kangaroo leather cleats, side-tie, no tie, gel, and ad nausem became the rallying cry for needing a new pair every few months. If cleats provided as utilitarian a purpose as young players argue, then why aren't the boots all just black and functional? I think we all know the answer to that one. Function in a spanking new format is the name of the promotion game. You can't get a product out the door of a store before the new banner touting a faster, brighter, cleaner, streamlined version unfurls. Ask either of my boys how often I said, "the color doesn't matter," and they'll tell you how often they rolled their eyes. The same argument holds true for training devices, outerwear, bags, goalkeeper jerseys, and balls. "No" became very easy after I ordered with costs and duty a World Cup ball directly from Germany only to have it "disappear" less than four hours after arriving. 

When it comes to being in youth sports, parents try their best to manipulate outcomes often with disastrous results. Parents become bullies to coaches and club administrators in order to get their kids on the "right" team, which often doesn't mean the team which is right for their child's abilities and interests, but the team that is perceived as the standout team. When I was a club administrator and later a US Youth Soccer Association Olympic Development Program assistant I fielded a huge share of these threats and ultimatums. But parents couldn't accept "no" on behalf of their kids. In the end they got a reputation as being difficult and burned bridges. And need flew out the window with want.

Right now my oldest son is looking to transfer colleges. We have been paying a huge premium for him to attend the school he's at so he could play soccer there. But the cow has run dry. Without a major bump in scholarship money, we can't afford to continue sending him there. That's a huge "no" and hard to swallow. But he's been very understanding. I credit that understanding to having heard "no" other times in his life when he achingly hoped he'd hear "yes." What he needs is a good education; what he wants is a good education while he plays soccer. It may not be possible to give him what he wants. We hope it can still happen. We're working on that goal, but in life wanting it will never fully justify getting it. 

Sesame Street taught my kids and now my grandkids their numbers, the alphabet, and life lessons. But it also reminded me as a parent that an hour a day with some Muppets won't make a huge impact without the remaining twenty-three hours with me reinforcing the message. I know I was indulgent with my kids. I am definitely indulgent with my grandkids, but that's what grandparents were put on earth to do! But we all have to temper our desire to give our children everything they want because that's a bottomless pit of yearning. Soon it will be Hanukkah and Christmas, and we are already being inundated with the not so subtle message that love equals big gifts. I imagine Mick Jagger rarely denied himself or his children anything, but he still managed to get it right in a song. What we should be trying to do is to find what we need. What we want will always be around to tempt us, so there's no trouble finding that.
 

At Least There's Indoor Plumbing

Susan Boyd

Outdoor soccer is winding down in most of the country.  Even if the fields weren't turning into Elysian mud bowls and even if snow didn't obscure the lines, the dwindling daylight with the advent of standard time dictates that outdoor soccer isn't practical. Some facilities boast lights which makes them very special indeed, but in my soccer travels I've found that most of the lighted fields are in areas where the weather permits outdoor soccer year round and many overlook artificial turf.

So what's a player to do until spring and the return of daylight savings time?  The answer that immediately springs to mind – play indoor soccer.  But that's not always possible.  While some communities have indoor soccer parks, many indoor soccer practices and games occur in school gyms on less than ideal surfaces.  Obviously soccer clubs who want to both retain players and maintain training over the winter months end up reserving as much school and church gym time as they can.  In Milwaukee it's often a race to see who can get their applications into the recreation departments early enough.  That used to be my job – making sure our club procured sufficient indoor practice time.  I would stand outside the district office early on the first morning applications were accepted.  I even brought coffee for the staff as they arrived.  I'm no idiot – a happy government employee is a helpful government employee.  Every year we got our full complement of gym time minus the music concerts, election days, book fairs, and carnivals.  I wasn't just up against other soccer clubs; I was up against basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and after-school club.  I was once greeted in the grocery with the phrase:  You're the lady who steals all the gym time.  There's a reason my phone number is unlisted!

Despite taking risks that might drive my neighbors to march on my home much like the villagers did against Frankenstein's monster, I was not beloved in my soccer club either.  No, I was chastised by parents and coaches for reserving such inadequate facilities at inconvenient times.  The gyms rented for $7 an hour while the indoor soccer park rented for $180 an hour/field.  No coach was willing to accept a smaller wage and no parent was willing to pay a larger club fee, yet they felt that they should still be practicing indoors on a "real" field; that is to say a field one-third the size of a standard soccer field with walls abutting all four sides, artificial turf laid on a concrete slab, and an odor that on a good day could be described as burying your face in your child's soccer socks after a game in the rain.  Because the indoor park sponsored dozens of leagues, reservation times were usually Saturday and Sunday mornings before 8 a.m. and after 11 p.m.  Not exactly what the displeased wanted to hear.

There is another option for families, especially for families with young players – do another sport over winter.  This probably sounds treasonous coming from a blogger on a youth soccer site, but truthfully even soccer coaches agree that taking a break from soccer in the early years can be both healthy and beneficial.  Certainly once a player graduates to a select team he or she may need to practice year round to continue the development of individual and team skills.  But for players under age 12 taking a break from the sport gives them the opportunity to try out other sports, decide if soccer is the sport they want to singularly pursue, and open up to a new group of friends.  Additionally there's the argument that repetitive muscle training isn't healthy and leads to injury.  I tend to sidestep the medical issues and look more significantly at the social side of the argument.  Life is too short to be so focused so young.  There are winter sports that keep kids outdoors and give them a world of great experiences.  Few of our kids will end up being the next Michael Essien or Abby Wambach, but they will all grow up to be adults who need to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled.

Our sons chose to stick to soccer.  They love the sport.  When they aren't playing, they are often talking about the sport, reading about it, or watching it.  Yet even in the midst of all that passion, they also enjoyed basketball, baseball, snowboarding, running, golf, volleyball, and gymnastics.  They aren't proficient in any of these, but enjoyed doing them and continue to play many of them for fun.  They have friends who golf who have no interest in soccer and friends who snowboard who couldn't tell you what PK stands for.  Taking a two or three month break from soccer but not from healthy activity can't be bad for our children especially when the soccer they are missing is some reconfiguration of the sport to fit the constraints of an odd facility and its availability. 

Hopefully your soccer club or sports organization allows you to take winter off by providing a fee structure split among the seasons.  They should definitely do this until select soccer.  If they don't, it never hurts to ask if you can be relieved of the winter assessment if your son or daughter wants to try something else over the winter.  Or you can follow one grandkid's route.  He did gymnastics in the fall and now wants to do soccer indoors for the winter.  Go figure!