Soccer’s peculiar systems of justice continue to work out their problems on the world stage. The Italians, masters of faking injury on the ground, are being upstaged by the Spanish, who appear to have invented new forms of unsportsmanlike conduct while standing — and while touching neither man nor ball. Is a soccer crime being committed? And if so, what is the appropriate remedy?
The facts: Last Tuesday, Nov. 23, Real Madrid (Spanish superclub) met Ajax (former Dutch superclub) during group play in the UEFA Champions League, which is a season long playoff among the very best teams from the prior year’s league play in each European country. Real won the match decisively, 4-0, and because of its record to date in group play, advanced to the knockout stage. That round begins in early 2011.
But Real still has a meaningless group match against Auxerre.
Two Real stars, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, were ejected from the Ajax match during its last 10 minutes or so. Both were ejected for a second yellow card; both were ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct based on time-wasting. Alonso dawdled over a free kick, repeatedly running up to the ball, then pulling back without taking a kick. Ramos did something similar over a goal kick.
The accusation: Real manager Jose Mourinho (who is Portuguese) is accused of sending messages to the two players (via other Real players), instructing them to intentionally incur the yellow cards. Why? Under standard UEFA rules, accumulated yellow cards result in a suspension for the following match in the competition. Alonso and Ramos had previously collected yellow cards that put them on the brink of suspension. By triggering the standard ban, they now must sit — against Auxerre. No harm to Real there! Had the players not acquired their cautions against Ajax, they would have risked receiving a yellow card in a later match and having to serve suspensions for a match that matters. After the Auxerre match, they will have a clean slate.
Did Mourinho put the fix in? Of course, he has denied any wrongdoing, and the case against him and his players is built entirely on circumstance. Aside from the curious behavior of the players, Mourinho is well-known as a controversial but masterful tactician.
UEFA is investigating. Suspensions for the players of more than one match — which could impact Real during the knockout stage — appear to be within its power. On the one hand, the circumstantial case against Real appears strong, but the case for further suspensions derives largely from a rather vague sense of fairness that is borrowed from the world at large and applied to the soccer world. The case against further suspensions is based on more soccer-specific norms: Even if Real gamed the system, the system is game-able, and Real should not be punished for taking as much as the rules permit.
A final note: Watching the clip of the misconduct, I was amused to find that the complainer in chief among the Ajax players was Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan striker best remembered this year for an intentional handball for Uruguay against Ghana, during the World Cup finals. Just before the match against Real, Suárez received a multiple-match suspension (applicable to league play) from the Dutch football association. He bit a PSV Eindhoven player.