After scoring LAFC’s third goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Carlos Vela was substituted by manager Bob Bradley. When Vela looked over from the field and saw his number on the substitution board, he shook his head, scrunched up his face, ripped off his captain’s armband, and threw it in disgust before walking off.
With his display of anger, Vela went against convention of the substitution procedure, that of placid acceptance, and joined the long history of players unafraid to risk the ire of fans and managers with their public petulance. This is one of the great traditions in soccer.
I enjoy the theatricality of the begrudging substitution. The shaking of the head when the player sees their number on the board. The way they look at their teammates to see if their incredulity is justified. The slow walk off the field with their heads down. The ripping off of the armband, and refusing to shake the manager’s hand.
Sometimes a bottle gets kicked, or a seat if the player is truly enraged. A shirt gets thrown.
In Manchester City’s game against Tottenham Spurs earlier in August, Sergio Aguero was substituted after scoring to put City up, 2-1. He walked off the field angrily, then got into a verbal altercation with Pep Guardiola while seated on the bench. Aguero was the center of a similar incident two years prior — Spurs again — when he was subbed out of an eventual 4-1 victory. He reacted then by throwing his gloves on the floor.
The true comedy of a petulant substitution is the players almost always walk off the field, regardless of their anger. They throw their tantrums, yet fulfill the wishes of the manager. The display is like watching a child complain about being asked to do chores. They don’t outright refuse, but they make sure to let their superior know that they’re not happy with what they’re being asked to do, if only to exercise some bit of power.
Substitutions illustrate where power truly lies in the player-manager relationship. Though the laws of the game don’t state that a player has to obey their manager, the problems a player would face if they refused to come off the field — punishment by the club, being benched, the anger of the fans, demonization by the press — are so great that refusal is not a legitimate option. A player can do it, but only if they want to jeopardize their career and reputation.
But sometimes players do refuse to be substituted, and it leads to wonderful tragicomedy.
The most famous recent incident occurred in last season’s Carabao Cup final, when Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted in extra time. Kepa had been hurt earlier in the game, and Maurizio Sarri wanted to bring on reserve goalkeeper Willy Caballero for penalties.
Kepa waved off his manager. His teammates tried to talk to him. The manager threw a tantrum. Fans whistled at him. Yet, Kepa stayed on the field.
In the subsequent penalty shootout, Chelsea lost and Kepa was particularly at fault for failing to save a weak Aguero penalty. He was also punished by the club afterwards for undermining the role of his manager. That’s the trouble with refusing to come off the field, the player is then put under intense pressure to justify their behavior. Anything short of a heroic performance will see the player derided as a selfish saboteur.
Most players adhere to convention when being substituted. They may whine, moan, huff and puff, but they walk off still. Even in anger, they know it’s better to keep a fragile peace with club, manager, and fans, than to risk what might happen if they stay put.