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Monday, 11 October 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall: tackling the future of our 'beautiful' English game

Will Pearson

When Nigel de Jong scythed through Hatem Ben Arfa last weekend, he didn’t just break the Frenchman’s leg in two places; he also irrevocably ruptured the paper-thin sheath barely shrouding one of English football’s most pressing debates.
A weekend also permeated by Wolves captain Karl Henry’s horror-tackle only served in compounding the fallout from a string of incidents involving contentious challenges this season in the Premier League.  The subject of disproportionate aggression in the English game has been simmering more noticeably in recent years ever since the infamous Eduardo injury at St. Andrews in 2008 – an incident which led Arsène Wenger to propose a lifetime ban for perpetrator Martin Taylor.
Passion, speed, and aggression: the three characteristics which have long defined – and indeed popularised – the traditional style of our domestic football are now threatened as never before. The uproar that has ensued in football and the media since the events of last weekend has propelled the issue to a new level of scrutiny; one has to wonder about the long-term effect the dispute might have on both the style of our teams’ play and the way our football is policed.
While undoubtedly none but the vilest of hardcore supporters would ever wish serious harm on an opposing professional, this is –and always has been – a contact sport, and there are always going to injuries for as long as it remains that way.  And if you asked every professional footballer whether the game’s physicality should be maintained then the answer would unquestionably be an equivocal yes. 
The crux of the matter lies within the word excessive.
Some players, managers, and affiliates of the game argue that the problem is rooted in the unnecessary and unjust levels of hostility exuded by particular teams and individuals.  The idea that this is somehow new to English football, though, is complete fallacy.
There have always been thugs in the Premier League, but more often than not perceptions of individuals are either founded or cloaked in perspective and bias.  Where it would be nigh on impossible to defend a man like Ben Thatcher for his career of violent altercations, (see Pedro Mendes), or Michael Brown and his stamp on Ryan Giggs, there is truth in the suggestion that the confrontations perhaps would have been quicker forgotten if the two players were of a higher footballing quality.
Just last season Steven Gerrard escaped punishment for swinging an arm into the face of the aforementioned Brown, and was again lucky to emerge unreprimanded after an elbowing incident on Danny Welbeck in Liverpool’s recent game against Sunderland.  Roy Keane – for all the protests of dedicated United fans (admittedly sometimes myself included) – had a chequered disciplinary record and was prone to moments of great ferocity, as Alf-Inge Haaland could well testify. 
But will this be the abiding memory when football fans reminisce about Gerrard and Keane’s careers?  Not likely.  By the majority they will both be remembered as fantastic, hard-tackling, passionate, and combative midfielders, as footballers that imbued the very spirit of English football.  Their precocious talents will obscure the moments of lunacy, in the same way that Thatcher and Brown’s lesser abilities have only proved to expose their overly-aggressive tendencies.   
It is, then, certainly an issue of grave complexity and one often clouded by judgement.
Some have suggested the problem is more pronounced in the Premier League, as opposed to an issue with the English domestic game in general.  While covering the Rochdale/Yeovil League One game this weekend for another website, I asked a number of Dale fans their opinions on the matter: the general consensus was that there is as much hard tackling in the lower leagues, and that it only appeared more of a problem in the top-tier because of the level of media exposure and microscopic attention paid towards it.  There is certainly a lot of truth in the point.
There is also a need for clarification to the laws of football.  De Jong – despite the resultant injury to Ben Arfa – did win the ball first, and no foul was given by Martin Atkinson.  Sometimes a foul is awarded despite contact with the ball, if adjudged to be “unduly dangerous”; the fine lines of the law in this area are murky to say the least. 
There have been countless overreactions to the Manchester City man’s challenge: we have seen far worse tackles, including Henry’s the same weekend.  Fifa Chief Medical Officer Dr Michel d'Hooghe decried there to be elements of “criminality” and “brutality” creeping into the top-flight; and De Jong could be considered unfortunate to have been dropped from the Dutch squad in what appeared to be more a statement of intent by Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk after his side’s much-maligned performance in the World Cup final.  The fact that De Jong has emerged as a repeat offender is counting against him, with now even Ben Arfa’s home-club Marseille wading in to the debate by threatening legal action against the Dutchman, citing a need to “get rid of this type of individual from European grounds."
The FA and Fifa certainly need to address the issue of retrospective punishment: by banning it they only serve in tying their own hands over dealing with incidents on an individual basis.  What Fifa fear is undermining their own officials; the only Premiership example of retrospective punishment in recent years was forced when Greater Manchester Police threatened Ben Thatcher with assault after the Mendes incident.  There is no doubt criminal charges would be brought against a normal person acting with such aggression in the street, so as fans are we supposed to suspend our disbelief by suggesting acts like Thatcher’s are expected and may go unpunished on a football field?  Football is not theatrical realism, though; it is sport, real people, and real lives.
It is true Arsenal have been more cursed than most, with serious injuries rendered to Eduardo, Diaby, and last year, Ramsey – all resulting from rash challenges.  Fabregas was quoted in The Times this week, suggesting, “No Spanish teams would play like Bolton.  Here in England, it is all about the passion – the fans love it when there are hard tackles and you play long balls and counterattack.  But if you do that in Spain they will boo you.  Even if you win.”  It seems somewhat ironic that Bolton’s Kevin Davies – a man renowned for his own robustly physical approach – has earned an England call-up in the wake of such a current debate.
Fabregas also admitted that in Spain, “the way we play is the most important”.  This is also true of his Arsenal side, one crafted by Wenger in to a thing of beauty, yet one that has struggled to bolster its silverware in recent years.  Arsenal would probably do very well in La Liga, but at this time their approach has not reaped recent rewards in English football.
The English game is an individual animal, and one that requires balance between all facets of approach.  To take out its physicality would be to amputate one of its limbs, to remove one of its vital organs.
Perspective needs to be garnered across the board, and a more sensible approach to policing the game needs to be installed.  Immediate steps need to be taken to preserve the history and heritage of English football style to prevent a wholesale descent into European, continental grey. 
We have our own beauty and brilliance in England, and we can only hope it is allowed to continue – it is entertainment unbridled, it is theatre of the highest quality.

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