THERE is a theory, to which many parents subscribe, that soccer is the safest of the footballing codes for their kids to play.
After events of the past week, Sporting Declaration is not so sure.
I refer in particular to an incident in Newcastle’s A-League clash with Wellington at McDonald Jones Stadium last weekend involving Jets winger Jason Hoffman and Wellington defender Marco Rossi.
For those who missed it, five minutes into the second half, Rossi was in possession, attempting to shield the ball, as Hoffman arrived to pressure him from behind.
In a split-second response that brought tears to the eyes of many viewers, Rossi appeared to reach behind, grab Hoffman in an area most commonly known as the crotch, and squeeze forcefully. Hoffman immediately dropped to the turf in obvious distress, hands cupped around his nether regions, before bouncing angrily to his feet to remonstrate with Rossi and referee Jarred Gillett.
He clearly felt violated, and Foxtel replays were quick to pinpoint the cause of his chagrin. Commentator Andy Harper accused Rossi of a “squirrel grip” and “ungentlemanly conduct”, and judging by the accompanying vision, it was hard to disagree with that observation.
Referee Gillett may easily have missed the incident, given that he was following the play, but the same cannot be said of the A-League’s recently introduced Video Assistant Referee.
Unless he was asleep or watching Netflix, rather than the game, he must presumably have seen what unfolded – as did 10,877 fans via the stadium big screen.
And at this point, as is so often the case, the round-ball code’s disciplinary system was responsible for more raised eyebrows than Rossi’s handiwork.
Apparently (according to those I spoke to in the corridors of power at Football Federation Australia) “ungentlemanly conduct” is a red-card offence, so the VAR had two options.
Liaise with referee Gillett and tell him to send Rossi off, or allow play to proceed without even a yellow card.
He chose the latter.
That’s a judgement call and perhaps he felt Rossi was entitled to the benefit of the doubt. But it’s the next part of the process that raises question about the A-League’s judicial protocols.
Because the incident was seen and dealt with by the game-day officials, the match-review panel effectively had no authority to overrule their decision.
So even if the match reviewers believed that some form of sanction was warranted, their hands were effectively tied.
There is, admittedly, a vague clause referring to “obvious error”, but it seems the panel only play this card when they consider a player has been unfairly sent off and hence is facing an unwarranted suspension.
The bottom line is once the VAR ruled that Rossi did not deserve a red card, that was pretty much the end of the story.
If Hoffman was annoyed about that, he declined to comment on Monday – perhaps justifying the label of “the nicest guy in the A-League” my colleague James Gardiner once bestowed upon him.
Jets coach Ernie Merrick was similarly inclined to let it pass through to the keeper.
“Our view is that, unless it’s a really dangerous tackle, what happens on the field, stays on the field,” he said. “Jason’s not worried about it. We just move on.”
Fair enough, but I can’t help pondering a couple of questions.
First of all, if Rossi’s incident has escaped any form of punishment whatsoever, has it created a precedent? Is it now open slather for squirrel grippers in the A-League?
Moreover, what if Hoffman had suffered an injury to what most would consider a vulnerable part of the anatomy? Would he have been entitled to any recourse?
It’s not as if the match-review panel treat the issue of on-field etiquette lightly.
Brisbane Roar defender Avram Papadopoulos copped seven matches earlier this season for spitting at Sydney FC's Matt Simon.
Last season Melbourne City goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis was banned for five games for calling Melbourne Victory's Albanian striker Besart Berisha a “f---ing gypsy".
The message to players seems to be don’t spit at opponents or racially abuse them, but feel free to grope their wedding tackle, because it’s no holds barred.
Let’s weigh up the lenience shown to Rossi alongside justice, rugby league-style.
South Sydney’s Sam Burgess copped a two-game ban in 2013 for a squirrel grip on Melbourne’s Will Chambers, after which he was embarrassed and remorseful.
More recently, in 2015, then Knights prop Korbin Sims was caught manhandling former teammate Willie Mason in a game against Manly.
Given that Sims’s indiscretion was more an affectionate fondle than a blatant squirrel grip, he escaped suspension. But NRL officials were still disgusted enough to send him an official warning letter for a concerning act.
The irony is that the NRL’s bunker and judiciary are constantly hammered during the season by critics querying their credibility.
This week’s events would suggest they have a firmer grip on reality than their soccer counterparts.
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