On sportsmanship

A kerfuffle erupted last night after the friendly between Major League Soccer’s all-stars and Bayern Munich. Bayern manager Pep Guardiola was angered by a couple of hard tackles and wagged his finger at and then refused to shake the hand of Portland boss Caleb Porter, who was in charge of the MLS group. Guardiola then disingenuously said he “didn’t see” Porter. I’ll leave commentary on this classless display to others.

I was reminded of two related incidents in my soccer career.

Only once have I ever refused to shake opponents’ hands after a game as a player. A team in our men’s league is consistently the most physical. Depending on the ref – two of the four regular refs never call anything by anybody – they can get away with it. Even with one of the good refs, they dodge persistent infringement cautions by having everyone foul so the ref forgets how many each player has accumulated. I don’t know if this is calculated or if they’re all just naturally goons. Even the female players (this is a mostly male league) are dirty.

One game last winter, it seemed to hack our skill players virtually every time they got the ball. No yellow cards were shown. i’m surprised our skill players could walk off the field on their own. I was so disgusted that I refused to shake hands after the game. I’m not sure why this game was different than all the other times we played these hacks but I’d had enough. One of their players sniffed at me, “What about sportsmanship?” She didn’t like it when I informed her that sportsmanship *during* the game is even better than sportsmanship after the game.

Despite coaching against many overly physical teams, I’ve never refused to shake an opposing coach’s hand. If I’m really upset, I’ll shake hands but won’t say anything (not the typical “nice game”); that way, I can follow protocol without feeling like a fraud.

But one time, I refused to allow my players to shake the hands of the opponents. It was not a decision I took lightly but not one I regret either.

The first time we played this U17 team at home. They showed up, clearly certain that they were going to wipe the floor with us. They were from a good sized city and  they no doubt saw my players as hicks in the sticks. They barely touched the ball. They lost that game 3-0 and it wasn’t that close. Frustrated, they were hacking the crap out of us.

During the post-game handshake, one of their players kidney punched one of my players. When my player (possibly the least aggressive U17 I’ve ever coached) shoved him back, my player was red carded. As their goons walked by our bench, they “invited” my players to meet them in the parking lot. In the parking lot, one of their players peeled out with his car, nearly hitting one of our parents and spraying her with pebbles.

I was so angry at all this that I emailed the league and demanded they send us experienced officials for the rematch away or I’d refuse to play. They did. We again beat the team comfortably by three goals. They again got frustrated and dirty. The officials sent off one of their players and almost did so to another. There was no way I was going to subject my players to the fraud of a “sportsmanship” line and risk another of them getting cheap-shotted and then punished for it.

When I informed the other coach of this, he appeared to understand (he didn’t seem to have much control of his players; he seemed kind of embarrassed by their goonery. He shook my hand and pleaded with me to at least shake his captain’s hand and allow him to do the same to mine. I accepted. So at least that was something.

His players didn’t seem impressed but I didn’t care. I was an hour from home and didn’t feel like spending the rest of the evening accompanying one of my players to the hospital or police station.

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