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Soccer newsletter: European match stained by racism again

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and we start today with another European match stained by racism and the failure of a team, an officiating crew and later an entire league to take an unequivocal stand against it.

This time it happened in the Spanish port city of Cadiz, where Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby had to be separated from Cadiz’s Juan Cala 29 minutes into Sunday’s La Liga game. Diakhaby, a Frenchman of Guinean descent, told officials Cala had called him a vulgar racial epithet, yet referee David Medié Jiménez responded by giving Diakhaby a yellow card, after which the player walked off the pitch followed by his teammates.

That should have been the end of it. The game, which was being played in an empty stadium, should have been suspended at that point. And if the referees or even the league insisted it continue, Diakhaby’s team – and especially his teammates – had to refuse.

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But that’s not what happened.

The match report from Medié Jiménez reportedly included the racial insult Diakhaby said was used against him, but the report also said the insult was not heard by any member of the officiating crew despite the fact it was shouted in an empty stadium. Medié Jiménez then added injury to insult by telling Valencia it would be sanctioned if it did not finish the match.

Valencia’s players should have stood with Diakhaby. They should have refused to continue and forfeited the three points if necessary to take a stand. Is the character, courage and culture of a team not worth at least three points?

But that’s not what happened.

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About 15 minutes later the players, without Diakhaby but with his endorsement, returned to the field. Cala, meanwhile, was allowed to complete the first half before being subbed off at intermission of a 2-1 Cadiz win.

Valencia president Anil Murthy said that should never have happened.

“We are saddened that, following the incident, there was no reaction to stop the game,” he said. “There cannot be a lack of action in light of these types of situations.”

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Racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic taunts, gestures — and worse — have plagued soccer, especially in Europe. But on Monday, while La Liga was issuing a tweet “condemn[ing] racism in all shapes and forms,” its president said it would study the matter. You know, just to be sure.

“We are already carrying out an internal investigation with the videos and images of the game,” president Javier Tebas told Movistar. “We have to clarify what happened.”

It reportedly was the first time a La Liga match has been stopped – albeit briefly -- by charges of racial abuse on the field, although such attacks have been on the rise across European soccer, especially on social media. Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, like Diakhaby a Frenchman, said he didn’t need a study to come to a decision.

“These are serious things. I wasn’t in the field so I don’t know exactly what happened,” he said. “But I’m just saying, and it’s my feeling, that when it comes to racism, you really have to have zero tolerance.”

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Some clubs in England have come to the same conclusion with Arsenal considering a boycott of platforms such as Instagram and Twitter in its fight against on-line abuse of players.

“Nothing is off the table,” team chief Vinai Venkatesham told Sky Sports last week. “We all have to acknowledge this has gone too far. There is a really dark side to social media and we cannot accept that.

“I don’t see that getting any better. I see it getting worse and we have to find a way to solve it.”

Manchester United, citing online attacks in particular, has launched a campaign of its own encouraging fans to report incidents of racism or other hate crimes, to speak out and to stand up for those who may be on the receiving end of abuse.

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Vela promising to bounce back

LAFC captain Carlos Vela spent the majority of his career in Spain, where he played nine seasons with Real Sociedad, Salamanca and Osasuna. But his most productive season came in MLS, where in 2019 he broke the league scoring record with 34 goals in leading the team to the best single-season record in history and earning the MVP award.

He followed that with a four-goal season last year, the biggest one-year decline by a returning Golden Boot winner in MLS history. As a result, the team barely squeezed into the postseason, then lost in the first round.

There are reasons for that, of course. With COVID-19 raging, Vela skipped the MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, Fla. to stay in Los Angeles with his wife, who was pregnant. Then he torn the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in his first game back. As a result he made just seven regular-season appearances, his fewest since leaving Mexico for Europe as a teenager.

But in his longest, most expansive print interview in more than a year, Vela said he doesn’t regret his decision.

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“No, honestly, I feel I did the right thing,” he said. “Because in the end football, yeah, I love to play, but it’s my job. The most important [thing] for a person in this life is the family; is your wife, your kids. So sometimes if they need you there, you have to be there. In that part, I feel I did the right things and I feel good about that.

“Of course, when you see the game, just see your team is losing, you feel like ‘Oh, maybe if I was there, we can win.’ But it’s something that we will never know. And we don’t have to look back.”

Instead, LAFC’s captain is looking to the future and believes the best way to erase a bad year is to have a great one.

“This year I will fight for the MVP again. If I think in that way it will be good for the team,” he said. “When you play good, you do good things, the team is also doing good things. Everything is going in the same direction.

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“So my individual goal is to make the MVP. For the group, [the] goal is to win the championship.”

Vela said he trained normally in the offseason and the injured knee is 100%. But his return won’t solve all of LAFC’s problems because, aside from missing Vela, LAFC also was missing a defense that couldn’t keep the ball out of the net last year when it gave up a franchise-worst 1.77 goals a game. Only five other teams did worse.

To fix that, LAFC has added three defenders since October, including Kim Moon-hwan, a right back with the Korean national team. Kim has been slowed in the preseason by a knee injury he brought with him from Korea.

Those problems pale in comparison to the impact the deadly COVID-19 pandemic had on LAFC – and society – in 2020. It infected players and coaches, wiped out four months of the schedule and left MLS teams playing the fewest games in history. LAFC coach Bob Bradley, who nearly qualified the Egyptian national team for a World Cup while playing through a civil war, said he called on those experiences to help his players focus on the game while understanding soccer wasn’t the biggest thing in their lives.

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“From a leadership standpoint, that continues to be a big challenge,” he said. “There’s no choice. That’s what’s happening in the world. You try to understand, try to keep ties with everybody. We tried to find different ways just to keep everybody going.”

In the larger picture, the fact the pandemic limited LAFC to just two games in front of fans at Banc of California Stadium didn’t matter. But it did rob the team of what had been a comfortable home-field advantage.

Playing with the raucous 3252 supporters’ union in the building, LAFC lost just twice in 36 games in its first two-plus seasons. Playing in an empty stadium at the end of last year, it lost twice in nine tries. For Bradley, having the fans back, even in limited numbers, marks another signpost on the return to normalcy.

“It’s going to be nice to hear real fans instead of that fake fan noise,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that.”

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U.S. Soccer adopts new concussion rule

Teams will be able to make two additional substitutions per game to replace players with suspected head injuries, according to a rule change announced Monday by U.S. Soccer. The new guidelines will be used in MLS, NWSL, all USL games and the National Independent Soccer Assn.

“Adopting this new rule is an important step as we continue to lead the way in player safety,” Dr. George Chiampas, U.S. Soccer’s chief medical officer, said in a statement. “It was critical to come together as a sport with our professional leagues and proceed in this pilot program, prioritizing the well-being of our players above all.

“We’ve worked hard to raise awareness of head injuries in soccer over the last several years, and this change should go a long way in protecting players suspected of suffering a concussion.”

The rule was implemented for the first time during the 2021 SheBelieves Cup last February in Orlando, following a decision by the International Football Association Board to approve a 20-month trial of concussion-substitution guidelines this year. The rule allows teams to permanently withdraw a player suspected to have sustained a concussion without using one of its five regular substitutions.

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And finally there’s this…

The Galaxy are expected to announce the acquisition of French winger Kevin Cabral, perhaps as early as Tuesday morning. The Corner of the Galaxy website, citing reports from French paper L’Equipe and MLS’s Tom Bogart, put the value of the deal at around $5 million. Cabral, 21, has played the last three seasons for Valenciennes of France’s Ligue 2. He started a career-high 28 games this season and earned career bests for goals (7) and assists (4) as well. But with the team stuck in the middle of the second-division table, Valenciennes couldn’t afford to keep him. Cabral, who is expected to sign a long-term deal, is the second French winger the Galaxy have signed in the last month. He will join Monaco’s Samuel Grandsir in Carson … Bayern Munich will be without striker Robert Lewandowski for another three weeks after the Bundesliga scoring leader sprained a ligament in his right knee in Poland’s World Cup qualifier with Andorra last month. That likely will cost Lewandowski, who had 35 goals in 25 matches, his chance at Gerd Mueller’s single-season league record of 40 goals, but it could be more costly to the team. Without Lewandowski, Munich held off second-place RB Leipzig last Saturday but it faces Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday in the first game of a two-leg Champions League quarterfinal. The game is a rematch of last year’s Champions League final won by Bayern Munich 1-0 … Jeff Larentowicz announced his retirement Monday after a 16-year MLS career that included 23 games with the Galaxy. In addition to winning MLS Cups with Colorado and Atlanta and U.S. Open Cups with New England and Atlanta, the 37-year-old Larentowicz also made big contributions to the league through his work with the players union. He retires having made 464 appearances for five clubs, good for third on the all-time MLS list … The draw for the Tokyo Olympics women’s soccer tournament will be held April 21. The World Cup-champion U.S. women’s team will be bidding to become the first team to win World Cup and Olympic titles in the same four-year cycle. The 12-team field includes five of the world’s top eight teams, according to the latest FIFA rankings.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“Well, honestly, I don’t think about that. I just focus on being at my best level. To score goals, make everything for my team. And after that, we never know.”

Carlos Vela on whether he’s shut the door on the Mexican national team. Vela hasn’t played for El Tri since the 2018 World Cup.

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Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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