Off the Crossbar: Player power

In a fitting precursor to Sunday’s primetime event, Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga produced an Oscar-worthy performance during the final minutes of his team’s defeat to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Final. The Spanish goalkeeper had gone down twice with leg injuries during extra time after a goalless 90 minutes of regulation time. His manager, Maurizio Sarri, decided not to risk his health for the penalty shootout and sent backup keeper Willy Caballero on. But Kepa had other ideas. When he saw his number held up by the fourth official, he furiously waved away his replacement. For a few moments, everyone stood shell-shocked. Sarri motioned for him to come off again, but the Spaniard wouldn’t budge, repeatedly giving the bench a thumbs up and waving away Caballero. This embarrassing and highly unusual scene went on for a couple of minutes until a furious Sarri finally backed off.

Later, the two tried to play it off as a simple “misunderstanding,” with Kepa saying he wanted to tell the manager he was not injured and was fine to continue. But the fact that Kepa’s action was tolerated is a glaring sign of the tremendous increase in player power over the past few years, especially at Chelsea Football Club. For Kepa to undermine his manager so publicly, instead of running over and explaining the situation to Sarri, is inexcusable. It’s hard to imagine a player 10 years ago refusing to follow his manager’s decision. Argentinian star Carlos Tevez spent five months in exile at Manchester City after he refused to step on the field when his manager Roberto Mancini wanted him to come on as a substitute in 2011. However, too many of today’s managers live in fear of their star players.

Player power is a topic that has come to the forefront of the NBA as well. New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis shocked the NBA world by requesting a trade from his team a year and a half before his contract was up. The Pelicans refused to trade him, but their options for dealing with Davis’ tantrums were handicapped when the NBA threatened to fine them $100k per game if they benched Davis during the rest of the season. Yet again, a star player publicly defied his team’s management but got his way — to a certain extent, anyway.

There used to be an unwritten rule in sports — obeying the manager’s decisions was mandatory — but it has slowly eroded over the past few years. I’m all for players taking control of their own destiny, but, at some point, the power dynamic between players and management must be maintained. Managers and coaches will make decisions, and it is a professional players’ job to respect those calls.

Kepa had one out: If he had turned in a heroic performance in the penalty shootout and helped Chelsea win the Cup, his ludicrous display could’ve been redeemed. He didn’t, letting one penalty into the net. And, like non-victorious Oscar nominees, he was left trying to put on an “everything’s okay” face after his embarrassing evening on the green carpet at Wembley.