Ian Plenderleith explains why he believes Stoichkov's horor tackle in a friendly game in the US should have seen him banned for life
In a friendly between DC United and American University, a couple of weeks prior to the 2003 Major League Soccer season, DC’s new striker and assistant coach, Hristo Stoichkov, 37, broke the leg of AU’s 18-year-old midfielder Freddy Llerena. For his trouble the Bulgarian received a red card, while the MLS Disciplinary Commission served him with a $2,000 (£1,250) fine and a two-match suspension.
That’s not quite the whole story. Although it may just have been, as Stoichkov described it in his statement of remorse, “an incident that occurs in soccer”, its context raised the question: why did a professional of Stoichkov’s calibre and experience clatter a college student, studs raised, in a match of no significance?
For those who witnessed the tackle that caused the compound fracture of Llerena’s right leg in the game’s tenth minute, the reason was clear. A minute earlier, one of the linesmen had (correctly) ignored Stoichkov’s appeal for offside on an AU attack that led to the college side’s goal that levelled the game at 1-1. After the goal, Stoichkov shouted at the linesman. When play restarted, he almost immediately took out his frustration on Llerena with a brutal and unnecessary challenge.
As outraged AU coaches and players ran on to the pitch to attend to Llerena, Stoichkov received his red card and walked off, stony-faced. Only when he realised that he had broken Llerena’s leg did he turn around and show some regret (he was surely the only person in the ground who hadn’t heard the bones snap). He bent over Llerena, who was screaming in pain, and comforted him until an ambulance came. The match was then abandoned.
DC United took no action against Stoichkov, passing the buck instead to the MLS Disciplinary Commission and its grandly named Technical Advisory Panel. These bodies looked at three separate videos of the tackle, and discounted the offside incident, because the match officials hadn’t deemed Stoichkov’s dissent as worthy of a yellow card.
They also pointed out that it was “unclear from the evidence what Stoichkov’s state of mind was when entering into the challenge”, and therefore it could not be taken into account. Ultimately, its conclusion boiled down to: “The challenge itself is a play on the ball. It is not outside the course of play, nor can it be described as an assault.” The $2,000 fine was because the DC player raised his studs and because of “the amount of force used”.
AU coach Todd West, however, described the tackle as “criminal”. And as Llerena was treated, staff and players from both sides stood around shaking their heads in shocked disbelief at what they had just seen. Yet insultingly, the league stated in its report: “Unfortunately... inaccurate descriptions of the incident were publicly circulated by those who did not have the benefit of reviewing the video evidence.” Well, who needs eyewitnesses sitting ten yards away when you’ve got grainy video footage?
DC United’s general manager Steven Zack, meanwhile, said it was “regrettable that media accounts... were at odds with the conclusion of MLS, based on the opinions of a number of soccer professionals who have viewed multiple videos of the play.” He didn’t mention that “professionals” often tend to see things from the viewpoint of, well, their own profession.
One of the videos, a poor-quality clip available on the internet, does little for Stoichkov’s case. True, the tackle was arguably made on a 50-50 ball, and clearly Stoichkov never intended to break Llerena’s limb, but it was still an inexcusable, deliberate challenge. To say that evidence about the Bulgarian’s state of mind was inadmissible is a bit like saying someone who killed a child while driving drunk at 70 miles per hour should be let off because they never intended to kill, these things just happen on the road.
Thanks to Major League Soccer, whose tragi-comic report can be interpreted as either spineless or embarrassingly naive, Stoichkov can continue to play. Hristo and the league also wish Freddy Llerena a speedy recovery. As a member of the media who publicly circulated his eyewitness account, I find it regrettable that the conclusion of the MLS is at odds with my own view. Namely, that the MLS should have shredded Stoichkov’s contract and banned him for life.
From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month