“I never meant to hurt anyone. I was defending my shirt.”
The beautiful game wasn’t at all today as Brazil faced off against Colombia in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup. The sad part is that you could see it coming even before the match started as the coach of Brazil, “Big Phil” Scolari, went on at a presser about no more Mr. Nice Guy, and people are going to see a different side of Brazil.
Against Colombia Brazil came out kicking, a tactic facilitated by the appalling refereeing display by Carlos Velasco Carballo, a ref who, it will shock no one, plies his trade in La Liga. He did nothing, called nothing, and rewarded the increasing violence with a series of stern gazes, but no cards. Then Colombia started kicking back.
In the second half Juan Zuniga went in hard on Neymar. It didn’t look like much at the time and when Neymar went down clutching his back and stayed down, it’s a safe bet that a great many people scoffed and said “Oh, get up.”
It wasn’t until he was on the stretcher, weeping, that people began to suspect that it wasn’t just another boy crying wolf incident. Then came the word: fractured vertebrae, with a 4-6 week recovery period.
Football has a culture that, however implicity, condones violence. Fans of the Premier League talk about it being a “man’s league,” with fast and hard challenges and physical play. Players are lauded for not shirking a challenge, for facing up to the physical part of the game “like a man.” Diving and embellishing are considered more reprehensible than the physical act that resulted in the incident, because you take your hits like a man in this man’s game.
And then as a player is laying on a stretcher, shedding tears because his World Cup, in his very own country is over, people begin to wonder — at least some do, about the ugly, violent side of the beautiful game.
What’s fair and what’s foul
A foul is, simply enough, preventing or impeding illegally, through physical means, a player on the opposing team. There are even degrees of foul, ajudged subjectively by the referee tasked with controlling the match. There’s your regular foul, your yellow card and your red card. It’s the subjectivity that often causes problems, as it did today when simply put, no cards reared their heads until it was too late, even for clear cardable offenses.
There were 54 fouls in today’s match, and while there is plenty of blame to go around, at some point there has to be a question of responsibility and culpability.
I race bicycles, in a discipline called match sprinting, in which two riders face off on the track, the objective being to win the race. Match sprinting can get physical. Shoulder bumping, wheel flicks, knees flying and head butting. As you take part in this racing, with the objective being to work a favorable result, you never think about the consequence … what if your tactical hook or chop at the front wheel of another rider results in serious injury. Crashing is part of the sport.
Sprinting has cleaned up a lot over the years, but still, as seen here, crashes happen.
Kevin Sireau didn’t think, as he tried to make space on Gregory Bauge, that he was going to crash. It isn’t, and can’t be part of your mind set. You’re trying to win a race. You shove the bars in, shoot the elbow and assume the best.
How different is football? Look at the Blaise Matuidi tackle during the France/Nigeria match, also at this year’s World Cup:
Quite clearly, Matuidi was going for the ball, and missed. And he got ankle. But the way that he went in almost ensured that if he missed the ball, he was going to get the opponent’s ankle. He did, and received a yellow card.
At the time, some called for a straight red. Diego Maradona called the stomp worse than Suarez’s bite which, from the purely physical and consequences worldview, is. This is what Nigeria’s FA had to say about the matter:
Onazi was brutally attacked by French midfielder Blaise Matuidi in the second half of the game and had to be stretchered of the pitch. He was rushed to a hospital where it was revealed that his tibia and fibula are broken and will keep him sidelined for a couple of months.
And this is the real challenge in trying to eradicate violence from the game — same as in match sprinting, finding that balance between safety and a lack of inhibition as an athlete pursues a result. When an athlete begins to think, he is subsequently inhibited. Jack Tatum was never the same player after the tackle that left Darryl Stingley a quadriplegic.
But at the time he was making the tackle, he was playing his game, just as Matuidi was playing his. But then you have the Zuniga case, where the intent wasn’t anything approaching playing the ball. What will the consequences be, and what should the consequences be?
Many argue for the “eye for an eye” theory, that the suspension lasts as long as the injury caused. But again, it’s the parsing by intent. Is the Matuidi incident as severe and violent in intent as the Zuniga one? In the blizzard of outrage, it’s important to temper reactions, as difficult as it might be.
What’s important to note is that both were violent acts, intended to send a physical message while also pursuing the play. That they were part of the game is where the complexity arises.
Yet simply enough
Both the Matuidi and Zuniga incidents stem from the game’s culture. It’s physical, and violence is okay. It isn’t directly encouraged, but we hear TV announcers say, in match after match, “That was just a hard foul.”
Just a hard foul.
I quip that Mascherano would slide tackle his mother, but what if his uncompromising slide tackles one day go awry and destroy an opponent’s ankle ligaments? It’s a struggle that certain types of players make on almost every challenge they decide to make, even as they don’t really know they are making the consideration.
As a supporter of FC Barcelona, it is assumed by me that our players are going to get kicked, rather than kick. They will appeal to the ref to stop the excessive physical play and if that fails, they will begin to embellish. And the man’s men will call them wimps, that they don’t like it up ‘em, or innem, or whatever they don’t like. And the kicking will continue, match after match, because how else are you going to stop a superior player?
Problems and solutions
The biggest dilemma that the game faces is how to deal with violence. Not the overt violence, where a player leans in and bites someone. That is an act of, for me, unspeakable violence even if no damage is done. But what of the violence that occurs as a regular part of the game? The hard fouls, the “professional” fouls, the incidents that can result in a serious injury? Is there a way to eradicate violence from the game, without making it figure skating on a grassy pitch?
Proponents of the physical game and “letting them play” would argue that no, nor should there be. That when men play a game fast and hard, there will be injuries. You punish the deliberate, malicious ones that result from truly violent play, but if a guy is going for a ball and gets an ankle instead, that’s just part of the game.
Others, and I am in this camp, don’t want violence in the game even as I understand that men flying at full speed means that accidents will happen. For me, the Matuidi challenge is different from the Zuniga one because of the circumstances, rather than the result. Zuniga was going for Neymar, and had no interest in the ball. Matuidi was going for the ball, and screwed up.
Compare that to that half-assed Alex Song punch at a Croatian player, which resulted in a straight red. In terms of consequences, it was the least violent act, yet it received the sternest in-match sanction because of the nuances of football’s culture of violence. If you kick someone as part of play and injure them, well, it was an accident. If you take a punch at them, that is outside the boundaries of the game, as as such strictly verboten.
So Song, Matuidi and Zuniga. What should their penalties be? As part of the effort to eradicate violence from the game, it’s easy to set up an independent panel that reviews incidents with an eye toward evaluating them, and meting out the appropriate sanction. This shouldn’t inhibit play too much, even if it might as the Big Brother is Watching notion begins to enter player heads.
Yet the MLS has such a system in place, and that game isn’t inhibited at all. That is the easiest way to do it.
Another way is to standardize referee training. There is no reason for a foul not to be a foul, across all leagues and competitions. One ref’s no call is another’s foul is still another’s card. Then there is red vs yellow, and what time is too early to give a yellow, and you can’t call every foul, etc, etc. Yet the challenge is that with each and every foul that doesn’t receive the appropriate sanction, the physical play becomes fouling becomes violent. Then a player is out for months, and people are saying what a shame it is. The consequences elevate the act.
Until the game fixes its culture of machismo and tacitly endorsed violence, nothing will change, and players will continue to get hurt. Recall when Neymar ran afoul of Scott Brown, as Barça played Celtic in Champions League:
More people snarled at Neymar and his “playacting” than the violent act of Brown in bringing Neymar down, then giving a little kick for his trouble. “Man up, stop diving,” manly men growled. In doing that, they condoned violence. A few people said that simply, Brown didn’t have to do what he did, and were called supporters of diving, Neymar fanboys, etc, etc.
No. Hell no. Some people simply don’t want to see violence in the game.
Will there be fouls? Naturally. That’s unavoidable. Keeping those fouls from crossing the line into violence is the challenge that a referee faces. Eradicating violence from the game is a dilemma that, frankly, we all face.