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John Haydon: Soccer players accept severe penalties

(Sunday, December 21, 1997) -- It hasn't been easy recently to escape the irritating chatter about the one-year ban placed on National Basketball Association star Latrell Sprewell for assaulting his coach.

This recalls some of the heavy punishments given to soccer players for lesser crimes than Sprewell's. And there was a lot less whining, too.

French star Eric Cantona was banned from soccer for a year in 1995 after calling the national team coach an obscene name. There was no strangulation or punching involved, but Cantona still paid a heavy price. Cantona was later banned for another two months for muttering the word "idiots" at a tribunal hearing. Imagine if he had spat at the soccer officials.

Cantona moved to England and became an even bigger star, winning three championship medals. But the Frenchman got in trouble again when he kicked a fan in the stands who had taunted him with ethnic slurs. Cantona's target was no innocent bystander, like the cameraman Dennis Rodman kicked. The loudmouth spectator was a bona fide hooligan with a rap sheet. But Cantona broke the rules, was banned for eight months and was given a suspended two-week prison sentence.

Cantona was a world star at the height of his profession, but he never held a news conference to denounce the ban or said it would ruin his career. He served his time coaching inner-city kids and came back to lead Manchester United to two more championships and an FA Cup title, an incredible achievement.

German star Stefan Effenberg made a rude gesture at heckling fans at Soldier Field in Chicago in the 1994 World Cup and was immediately kicked off the national team, never to play again for his country. Now that's harsh punishment.

Eric Wynalda punched midfielder Mark Chung and was kicked off the United States national team in 1992. He came back to become his country's all-time leading scorer. And we must not forget Diego Maradona, who served two 14-month suspensions because of drug use.

One player who always gets away with a slap on the wrist is Brazilian ace Edmundo. The man nicknamed "The Animal" is currently the top scorer in Brazil. Edmundo once stomped on a player, punched a teammate and caused a near riot at one game. He was kicked off the national team and missed the 1994 World Cup. Edmundo is still playing and only recently was caught on camera flooring a player with his elbow.

FIFA, soccer's governing body, has never been reluctant to banish those who cross the line. Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup for using overage players in a youth tournament. The soccer-obsessed nation suffered because of the mistakes of a few.

Chile was banned from the 1994 World Cup after the team walked off the field in a 1989 qualifier claiming their goalkeeper had been injured by a flare thrown from the crowd. It was later discovered that the goalie had faked the injury.

FIFA has been quick to make examples of those who don't play fair and it has worked. Maybe the NBA could learn from this.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and may be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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