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Farewell to football’s crunching tackle?

With referees punishing defenders more than they used to and cynical strikers using the tactic of play-acting, life is hard for soccer's big tacklers.


Nigel de Jong gives Xabi Alonso the Dutch treatment in the World Cup final. Photo:

The debate over bad tackles in football has shifted in recent weeks from Spanish shores to the island where the sport was invented, with a recent spate of incidents eliciting comment from all corners of the game.

A man who has played in both La Liga and the English top flight, Mark Hughes, held forth on the matter after one of his Fulham players, American international Clint Dempsey, was scythed down by Chelsea’s Michael Essien, who received a red card for his troubles.

“Years ago, I think there were a lot more fouls and it was refereed in a different way,” the former Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea forward said. “Certainly in my day, I had the reputation -possibly wrongly, I would suggest probably rightly- that I was a physical player, who enjoyed that side of the game. But, more often than not, people were fit and well when they came up against me after the game. Because it was about being competitive, but you never put your fellow professional at risk. Just lately, you sense some of the tackles are a little bit reckless and that can put other professionals at risk.”

On the same evening in the English Premier League, Spanish international midfielder Cesc Fàbregas was cautioned for a crunching tackle on Wolves’ forward Stephen Ward, which resulted in the Irishman being stretchered off the pitch. Fàbregas later apologised for the tackle and his Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, after adhering to his long-observed party line of “not seeing” the tackle in question, opined: “I think it was accidental, that’s what Cesc told me. He touched him, of course, but he wanted to play the ball.”

Wolves manager Mick McCarthy, himself no stranger to the more robust side of the game having played for Millwall and Celtic, was even more dismissive of Fàbregas’ zealous challenge. “He’s gone for the ball, so I’ve no problem,” Ward’s compatriot said. “Their player has aluminium studs and Wardy has got a big cut on his leg. Fàbregas has apologised and Wardy has accepted it like a man. It’s like a throwback to the days when you’ve broken someone’s nose and then buy them a pint at the bar.”

McCarthy’s assertion harks back to a different era in the game, when the majority of players formed part of a drinking culture at British clubs and football was still considered a contact sport. Red cards were seldom produced unless blood had preceded it, yet career-ending injuries were more prevalent than they thankfully are today.

The birth of the Premier League in 1992 brought greater revenues, an influx of skilful foreign stars and, as a result, greater scrutiny of players’ on-pitch behaviour. Almost overnight, the antics of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ and the blood and thunder approach of central defenders to their opponents became a scourge. Evolution, though, has made a game often described as a “gentlemen’s sport played by thugs” more of an adventure in subterfuge, as increasing numbers of players use the letter of the law to their own advantage; a ploy often displayed at its lowest ebb when a player who has barely been touched theatrically hurls himself to the turf, clutching his face in badly feigned agony in the knowledge that any contact in that area of the anatomy yields automatic dismissal for an opponent.

But for every attempt to dupe the referee into reaching for his top pocket there is an increasing number of truly shocking challenges that go unpunished, such as Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong’s leg-breaking assault on Newcastle winger Hatem ben Arfa. De Jong, who has a lengthy rap sheet in the studs-up department, gained notoriety on the most visible stage of all during the World Cup final, when he launched his right foot into the chest of Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso. The Netherlands team was widely derided for its game-plan of kicking Spain into pieces during a match viewed by billions globally, and La Roja’s victory was deemed a triumph of style over violence. That De Jong was banished from the Netherlands team after snapping Ben Arfa’s leg, but did not even incur a yellow card at the time, is tacit admission that the Manchester City man had been practicing such belligerence for too long.

George Best and “the reducer”

The prevalence of such a tactic in football has coined a term for its application: the reducer. It is a McCarthy-esque allusion to the days when a defender, unblessed with the trickery of the opponent he had been tasked to contain, would take an early opportunity to let the fleet-footed attacker know that he was in for a torrid afternoon. Youtube footage of George Best in his pomp shows the particular attention the ‘fifth Beatle’ enjoyed in that epoch, as much due to his outrageous skill as his media profile. Few defenders were punished for their actions though, as invariably Best would simply pick himself up and make a point of humiliating his aggressors time and time again, famously once rounding an opponent, backtracking, and making a fool of him afresh.

In the modern game the identity of a player can determine the action of the referee, as witnessed at the Vicente Calderón in September when Atlético Madrid’s Czech defender Tomas Ujfalusi clattered into Leo Messi in the dying seconds of the match.  Ujfalusi’s challenge on the Argentinean dynamo lacked malice but was certainly clumsy, resulting in a three-week layoff for Messi and a bout of hand-wringing about the amount of protection afforded to forwards in the Spanish league, particularly its two biggest ticket sellers, the Barça number ten and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo: seeing the latter leap to his feet after being felled, with a smile and renewed determination in the manner of Best, is not a common occurrence.

David Villa termed the big Czech’s tackle on Messi “brutal and horrifying,” which is an appraisal best reserved for reducers such as De Jong’s bone-snapping challenge on Ben Arfa: the Frenchman required oxygen on the field and will not grace St James’ Park again this season. Messi was back in action shortly after the Atlético match.

“I am not a hard player,” Ujfalusi said after the event. “I go in hard but always going for the ball and I give my all in every game. There are harder tackles than the one on Messi. The problem is that I did mine on Leo Messi.”

Ujfalusi has a point. If he had tripped, for example, Almeria’s José Ulloa, it would barely have caused a ripple. There is still a place in football for a stout defence, regardless of who is trying to breach it, and there is still little apart from a goal that brings a stadium to its feet in applause as surely as a perfectly executed tackle; an opposition forward sent flying as the defender sweeps the ball from his feet in a blur is as glorious a sight as Messi dancing past four or five players who are all too aware of the consequences of attempting to dispossess him.

Losing the art of defence

The very fact there is a debate at all is a product of the repackaging of football as a free-flowing goals-fest in which defenders are relegated to the role of fall guy for the wiles of the Messis and Ronaldos. The English league has always been more gung-ho than its Spanish counterpart, technique often the sacrificial lamb for the twin pillars of work rate and up-and-at ‘em tenacity. Forwards in the Premier League by and large are no shrinking violets, and although the likes of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney are not above playing to the gallery when it suits their purpose, neither are they built to be brushed off the ball by the breeze itself. Drogba, for example, played at the World Cup with a broken arm and has not been absent from Chelsea’s recent team sheets despite being diagnosed with malaria.

In Spain, under the current wave of opinion that defenders should tread ever-more lightly, there is the possibility that the crunching tackle will become a thing of the past, either through officialdom or the fear of media hounding after another of La Liga’s poster boys has been clubbed to the floor. This augers two unwelcome outcomes for lovers of the sport: firstly, that the art of defence will be lost; and secondly that increased ‘protection’ for the league’s shining lights –namely those of Real and Barça, which with their heavily skewed share of television revenues are already in a league of their own– will invariably lead to a wider chasm between the top two and the so-called “league of 18.”

The rules already provide for the protection of players – and not just those blessed with special talents. Those are the same rules that outlawed the tackle from behind, and which rightly punish a two-footed challenge when both feet have left the floor with an automatic red. To apply different rules for different players, depending on their status, is neither advisable nor practicable. Football is still a contact sport and until it is made otherwise, players will be tackled, and occasionally tackled hard. As long as those challenges are made within the rules of the sport, they have as much place in it as any other facet of the game.

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Published: Nov 16 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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