The Odisha crowd was pulsating with excitement despite the cyclonic weather conditions pelting Kalinga Stadium. Their Indian men's team had just come off a thrilling shoot-out victory in the quarterfinal of the Hockey World League Finals to knock out the favoured Belgian Red Lions and were now facing the Olympic champions, Los Leones of Argentina in the first semifinal.
The pace was understandably sluggish as the players repeatedly failed to remember to execute passes and dribbles in 3D to avoid the periodic puddles waiting to entrap them. In the second quarter, Argentinean veteran Lucas Vila accepted a pass on his side of the centre line and vaulted it ahead, trying to break through the wall of water with sudden pace. Sensing the danger, Indian captain Harmanpreet Singh chased back from the middle of the pitch, and just as Vila was reaching for the ball at the 23m line dove headfirst, expertly sweeping the ball off the sideline.
The problem was, his body slid directly across Vila's running line. At full stretch, Vila's feet were taken out from under him, and he fell just inside the attacking 23m. Umpire Ben Goëntgen of Germany didn't hesitate to stop time immediately to issue a 10-minute yellow card to a protesting Manpreet.
The objections weren't confined to the Indian team or their thousands of fans in the arena. The match commentators decried the decision, claiming Manpreet's tackle was “completely clean.” Twitter and Instagram lit up with screenshots, video clips, and arguments on both sides of the ledger.
What gives? Who's right, who's wrong, and what does it mean when one call is so contentious?
I'll start with the umpire's view–which is obviously the correct one, right? Slide tackles such as these have been a hot topic of briefings worldwide for several years now as umpires from the FIH level all the way through to those slogging through club duties have learned of their perils. Defenders who choose to go to ground and make body contact with a ball carrier are intentionally creating high risk of injury as well as breaking down play.
So why is a slide tackle such a big deal over any run-of-the-mill tripping breakdown foul, or when the goalkeeper makes a slide? It's all in the body.
When we play, we understand the many normal dangers that abound. We're all allowed to use our sticks to play the ball and that defenders will use them to defend. So we look out for sticks and avoid them, but fairly often, a tackling player will miss the ball and hit our own stick, or our body, or both. But we're expecting the legal attempt.
On the other hand, as field players, we aren't allowed to use our bodies to play the ball. Not our feet, legs, arms, stomachs, butts–nothing. So if we put those body parts in the way of where the ball is likely to go–along the ground towards opponents or the goal we're defending, for example–we're not playing within the spirit of the game at all. The very act of putting our bodies down there on the ground is unexpected and therefore challenging to prepare for or avoid. Moreover, we're highly likely to get injured when our feet are taken out from under us when our focus is in our hands holding the stick and our pursuit of the ball.
At the heart of it, this is what distinguishes hockey from football/soccer. Soccer players tackle with their feet all the time; the danger lies when they come from angles where you can't see them and prepare for impact. (Right? Look, I'm Canadian. I'm completely wading in waters in which I'm not entirely familiar. But work with me here.) Hockey players, with the highly significant exception of goalkeepers, do not tackle with their feet, their legs, their arms or their butts any of the time.
By the letter of the rule and by the briefings, Goëntgen was wholly correct and made the call expected of him by every umpire in the world, and maybe in a tiny way by Manpreet himself. Putting aside the comments reflecting the incorrect application of the football/soccer maxim, “he got the ball first, therefore anything after that goes,” there were interesting comments by at least two prominent retired international players that are worth exploring.
So according to Govers and Fuërste, the mandatory penalty is the problem. In their view, this encourages players to manufacture yellow cards for their opponents by not jumping over the defender, as though the onus is on them to preserve their own safety from defenders doing things they have little business in doing. Sure, sometimes the attacker can rely on their athleticism to instinctively avoid injury, or by sheer luck in this particular collision between a train leaving Westford and a train leaving Eastford the answer is zero knee ligaments torn. But do we want to encourage the data pool of slide tackles to increase in size so we can see just how many careers can be ended for the sake of one or two slide tackles a year which come off without injury?
I don't like putting the responsibility on the player who is doing nothing wrong to have more skill in avoiding a diving defender, while the defender gets let off the hook for failing to have the skill to make a great tackle that doesn't involve putting the attacker at risk of injury. It's also interesting to see two players advocating for more discretion on the part of umpires in a highly-contentious, large-stakes situation. At every level, we repeatedly hear cries for consistency, objectivity, a certainty of outcome. Doom to the umpire who exercises their subjectivity the “wrong” way in failing to or awarding a 10-minute yellow card, which is guaranteed to be wrong for one team or the other!
Another point umpires will hear made is that players feel attackers can slide with impunity while seeking deflections on goal, whether in free play or on penalty corner pieces. In short: they can't. An attacker without possession of the ball who slides into a defender's space and makes body contact should be penalized in the same way for the same danger. Although it's not a “tackle” because neither player involved has possession of the ball, it's equally dangerous play. We need the rule's interpretation to catch up here, not for the interpretation to be relaxed elsewhere to match this incorrectness.
At last, the contrarian brings out their ace in the hole: what about those goalkeepers? They're allowed to slide out at attackers with impunity and aren't penalised for it, right? Wrong. They often are penalised harshly for taking out ball carriers, and correctly so when they are last to the tackling party.
Why are goalkeepers treated differently than field players? Inside the circle, they're legally allowed to use any of their attendant body parts to stop the ball. Thus, they are expected to be sliding around on the ground, blocking space, making goal-saving nuisances of themselves. (Just kidding. We all love goalkeepers, despite their fashion sense and aromatic contributions to the pitch.) An attacker can't dribble up to a goalkeeper who has logged at the top of the circle, run straight into their leg guards and claim any foul. The onus is on the attacker to avoid a goalkeeper who has there before or at the same time as them.
None of this would even had been a discussion point had Vila stepped on Manpreet's back that suddenly appeared beneath him, found his foot going one way, his knee going the other, and came to the end of his tournament in that moment. The danger would have been evident by being proven in the worst possible way. Just because injury was avoided here should not mean that we back off our approach of discouraging slide tackles at every level of the game.
We're all safer for it.
(This article appeared in the Hockey World News Edition 3, December 2017)