UEFA should throw rule book at Real Madrid

What would happen if the police suddenly declared that petty

criminals – small-time shoplifters and tax-dodgers, drunk drivers

and the like – would no longer be caught and punished? It’s a safe

bet there would be public outrage and fears that the foundations of

law and order were being eroded.

Soccer should be no different.

There is an ill-informed school of thought which wrongly

theorizes that European soccer bosses shouldn’t be too harsh on

Real Madrid for the slippery gamesmanship of its coach and players

in the Champions League this week.

Those in favor of turning a blind eye like to pretend that

midfielder Xabi Alonso and defender Sergio Ramos didn’t really do

anyone any harm when they contrived to get themselves sent off in

the final minutes of Real’s 4-0 defeat of Netherlands team

Ajax.

Although Real coach Jose Mourinho and his players dismissed the

idea that they deliberately courted the red cards, their actions on

the pitch suggested otherwise.

By blatantly wasting time – their ham-acting was as exaggerated

as comedian Benny Hill, just not so funny – Alonso and Ramos

forced, nearly begged, referee Craig Thomson to book them. Alonso

slunked off with barely a complaint; after his red card, Ramos went

out of his way to shake the referee’s hand.

”It looks, frankly, terrible,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

said. ”It gives a very bad image of our game that we don’t

want.”

But wonderfully convenient for Alonso and Ramos. Earlier in the

match, both had already been shown yellow cards for fouling. They

both got a yellow in previous matches, too, so both now had an

accumulated total of two yellows. That was bad for Real, because

players who accumulate three cautions in three Champions League

matches must then miss a game as punishment.

Mourinho doesn’t want to be without Ramos and Alonso when the

next, even more financially lucrative knock-out phase of Europe’s

top club competition starts in February 2011.

Both played on Spain’s World Cup-winning side. Mourinho needs

Alonso to spray balls from the midfield to his goal scorers up

front. He relies on Ramos to guard Real’s back.

So it made more sense that Alonso and Ramos take their

punishment now, rather than later, when the stakes will be far

higher. Earn that third yellow against Ajax, get the automatic

one-match suspension quickly out of the way.

Which is what they did. Alonso took an eternity to take a free

kick, repeatedly stopping and restarting his run-up to run down the

clock. Ramos fiddled with his right sock and similarly dawdled

before taking a goal kick. So out came a yellow for both from

Thomson which, because it was their second in the game, became a

red.

They will now sit out Real’s last Champions League group game, a

Dec. 8 match against French team Auxerre that Mourinho can afford

to lose because his team has already qualified comfortably for the

knock-out stage.

Their slate of accumulated cards almost wiped clean (they now

have just one yellow each), Alonso and Ramos will be able to worry

less about the risk of missing a match in the knock-out stage. They

will be able to tackle harder, be a little rougher and play with

less caution, safe in the knowledge that they are not so close to

suspension.

What cunning!

Blinded by his charisma, Real’s supporters suggest that its

apparent rule-bending is further proof of Mourinho’s ”magic.”

They argue that Ramos and Alonso committed nothing more serious

that the soccer equivalent of telling a white lie, naughty but

ultimately harmless and without real consequence.

They say that because there are other, far bigger wrongs in

soccer, the misdemeanor of deliberately earning a card isn’t worth

bothering with. Let the petty criminals go.

They are wrong.

As in life, those that police soccer must ensure that the game’s

rules – all the rules, in both letter and spirit – are respected,

at all times, by everyone.

Otherwise, there is no point having rules and bodies to enforce

them. Allowing people to think that minor rules can be broken with

impunity erodes the authority of the whole rule book. Ignoring

minor violations invites bigger violations.

Alonso and Ramos, as World Cup winners, and Real, as the

top-earning team in world soccer, should set examples of fair play

and sportsmanship, not show how rules can be circumvented.

Soccer is already rife with cynical gamesmanship: players diving

in front of goal to try to win penalties, acting as if they’re

mortally wounded when fouled, pretending they’ve been hit or

elbowed in the face to get opponents sent off.

All the more reason that UEFA should take a stand and throw the

rule book at Real if it can prove that it orchestrated the red

cards for Alonso and Ramos. UEFA is investigating and plans to hear

the case next Tuesday.

Champions League rules don’t specifically state that players are

forbidden from deliberately trying to earn a card.

Nor should they have to.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org