Over the past few weeks, an emerging tactical theme has been coming up in the top flight of Spanish Football (soccer). In La Liga matches, the new tactic isn’t innovative formations and tactics, or even the traditional tactics of diving or grassrolling that some players have used. Rather teams are now using their ball boys to help slow down opposing teams in matches.
Sevilla beat Villarreal 3-2 over the weekend. Sevilla finished fourth in the table last season, and participated in Champions League this year, but has been in 7th place and is chasing Athletico Madrid and Athletic for the 5th and 6th place spots to qualify to play in the UEFA Europa League competition. Their opponent Villarreal was sitting comfortably in 4th place and looking to pretty much seal a Champions League spot this weekend. What transpired in the match, was Sevilla taking a 3-2 lead, and Villarreal pushing at the end of the match, attacking in hopes of getting a 3rd goal and grabbing a draw. ESPN noted on their front page today, that video replay shows that while Villarreal was trying to attack, a ball boy threw an extra ball on the field to stop the game. Later, another ball is thrown from the stands onto the field in front of the Villarreal goal, causing another delay in the game. Essentially, it boiled down to various individuals trying to stop and slow down the game, giving Sevilla time to get back and set up their defense, as well as waste time that Villarreal needed to try and grab that third goal.
The above ESPN article noted that this was not the first time this had happened during games, and that there had been several matches were this occurred, with one team fighting to avoid relegation having this ball-on-the-field type incident in one of the games they managed to win.
What really sticks out is the punishment for these balls getting thrown on the field offenses. Clubs who have been found guilty of tossing extra balls onto the field are fined a simple $877. Now if a team was fighting for a spot in Europe, $877 is a small chunk of change to pay if it helps keep you in the hunt for big name competitions which will bring in probably a thousand times (or potentially much more) more revenue than the fine. In other words, considering the financial incentives, why wouldn’t a team use this tactic to help them try to win games? From an ethical and sportmanship perspective this is clearly not the right thing to do, but as Football Clubs are businesses, most of them are probably motivated more on a financial level than a sportmanship level.
So really, this all falls down to the governing body. Is a $877 fine enough for a ball thrown on the field? Sometimes it is an accident, but when these accidents start happening more often late in games, it clearly becomes a problem. How long is it before every team takes a league and starts having ball boys toss balls onto field at convenient times? I think the solution is simple, stricter punishment. La Liga could fine teams with steeper fines for any game delaying tactics late in the game. James Reade mentioned in an earlier post of Real Madrid’s use of tactics to get two players sent off during a game, so that they would have their slate of yellow cards wiped clean. Another potential solution could be to dock points from teams who use such tactics during games, and thus make the punishment heavy enough that teams would not participate in these activities.
Basketball gives technical fans when fans disrupt games in progress, such as when the Louisville cheerleader ran onto the court earlier this year when he thought the game was over and threw the ball into the air. Louisville was charged with a technical foul and it almost cost them the game. In basketball such interference is easy to stop with technical fouls for such incidents, but such in-game punishment could be difficult to enforce in a game like soccer.
Either way, it’s another case of bad rules and policies potentially causing major issues in the top-level of professional sport. The Spanish Federation has come out and said they will look at the current policies to try to put a stop to this new tactic.