In this 2011 file photo, Netherlands' national player Erik Pieters runs for the ball during a Euro 2012 Group E qualifying soccer match against Hungary in Budapest. AP photo.
In soccer, fury has become part of the job. This sport celebrates coaches with short tempers — step forward Alex Ferguson. It idolizes angry players — think Roy Keane — and hails their on-field aggression and occasional brutality as demonstrations of “commitment” and “leadership.” It tolerates the idea that fans have a right to be angry in defeat, although it sometimes draws the line when they rip out their seats and pelt players with coins.
In short, professional soccer hasn’t been a mere “game” for decades, perhaps ever. It is awash with, thrives on, expects and openly encourages raw emotion and hot flushes of anger. In other industries, Ferguson’s “hairdryer” outbursts of frustration or kicking a boot in rage at David Beckham might have landed the Manchester United boss in seriously hot water with his employers or a labor inspector. In soccer, using ill temper as a management tool has earned Ferguson fame and respect. The 71-year-old seeing red is charitably viewed as proof of his enduring “passion.”
So if soccer was more of an honest, thinking sport, and less of a hypocritical one so fond of empty theatrical gestures, there would have been no need for Erik Pieters to apologize so profusely in public and in private this week for slamming his fist through a window. The PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands defender ripped open his right arm, leaving trails of blood on the shattered pane, landing him in surgery and a hospital overnight. This after the referee sent Pieters off for a lunging tackle in a 3-1 home defeat to PEC Zwolle in the Dutch league.
It could have been worse: Pieters could have been blithely indifferent to his red card in the 67th minute. You can bet that fans and his manager would have torn strips out of Pieters for that. In soccer, caring too much, showing too much fire, fury and “passion” is a lesser evil than not caring enough.
Mario Balotelli is an example of that. To his critics, the striker’s crimes at Manchester City include not being sufficiently serious about his job of scoring goals for the club. This is soccer, damn it! You must be aware, Mario, of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s golden rule that soccer is “much, much more important” than mere life and death? So wipe that grin off your face!
Pushed to extremes, the result of taking soccer too seriously and of soccer taking itself too seriously is too often tragedy. The Netherlands needs only to look to its backyard for proof of that. Last month, players beat and kicked a volunteer linesman officiating in his son’s youth football match. Richard Nieuwenhuizen collapsed and died the next day. Police have arrested eight people for the assault — seven of them teenagers.
The Netherlands Football Association banned Pieters for three matches for his tackle last Friday on PEC Zwolle striker Fred Benson and for kicking one screen and breaking another on his way back to the dressing room. The ban could be extended to a fourth match if the left back errs again. Wearing his injured arm in a sling, Pieters on Monday apologized both at a news conference and behind closed doors to his teammates and coaches at PSV, a 21-time winner of the Dutch championship since the club’s founding in 1913.
Pieters’ mea culpa included all the usual platitudes about being “a role model to kids.” One couldn’t help but wonder whether Pieters might not have been put on show like this if the pane of glass had been stronger. Did the soccer association’s discipline committee and PSV take such a dim view because they really want to discourage players from getting angry? Or was this more about appearances?
If not for television images of broken, blood-smeared glass, this whole affair would likely have blown over without the need for Pieters to bow and scrape, because players and coaches losing their cool isn’t news in soccer — it’s expected, even desired. After poor performances and defeats, how often do we hear coaches, pundits and fans calling for “a reaction,” “more aggression,” “desire,” “hunger” and “passion” from teams?
There were mitigating circumstances for Pieters. He was plagued for months by a foot injury that forced him to miss the European Championship last June. Friday’s league game was his first for PSV since April.
“He worked so hard to get back, and then he got the red card and then the moment happened and everything came out,” team spokesman Jeroen van den Berk said in a phone interview, by way of explanation, not as an excuse. “He just lost it for a second.”
It’s unclear how long Pieters will be out. Thankfully, this wasn’t as tragic as Slobodan Jankovic’s self-inflicted injury in 1993. Furious at a call that forced him to sit out a semifinal in the Greek basketball championships, the center for Panionios of Athens rammed his head against a cement block. He broke his neck and was paralyzed. He died in 2006.
And Pieters didn’t kung-fu kick and punch a spectator like Manchester United’s Eric Cantona in 1995. He didn’t thump the referee. He wasn’t plain nasty against a fellow professional as Joey Barton, Keane and other players have been. A broken window can be replaced.
“Some people would even argue that he is managing his anger by not directing it at a real live person,” sports psychologist Glyn Roberts said in a phone interview. “You could actually say that by breaking a window, by kicking a wall, whatever, you’re actually hitting an inanimate object, you’re dissipating your anger to some extent. But, of course, it can have unintended consequences.”
The tightrope between too much emotion and not enough of it clearly isn’t always easy for players to negotiate. In a sport that demands emotion, where anger is often part of the culture, it’s a blessing when only windows bear the brunt.
“I lost self-control and vented my frustration in an incredibly stupid manner,” Pieters said Monday. “It gradually dawned on me how badly I had behaved. I can still hardly believe it. My behavior was not only out of character but totally unacceptable. I wish to apologize sincerely and unreservedly to PSV, the fans, my friends, my family, actually to everybody.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicestercomments powered by Disqus