It remains, as it always has been, a mighty difficult task to decide exactly how much violence is permissible on the soccer field. It is all very well for the rules to condemn the use of "excessive force" -- but how to define "excessive"? Very much to the point, who is going to define it?
Soccer would like the referee, the official in charge of the game, to be the only judge (a position preferred by all competitive sports).
In many ways -- indeed, most ways -- that is a sensible arrangement. At the pro level, people are not coerced into playing their sports, they choose to play, and they get paid for doing so. Implicit in all that is the argument that they are aware that there are risks involved, and that they accept them.
As I say, a sensible arrangement. But it begins to break down when the violence causes serious -- possibly career-ending -- injury. What then? It is unlikely that any player would agree that he accepted the risk of having his livelihood shattered by an obviously vicious tackle.
That is when an authority higher than the referee must take a look. And it is when soccer functions poorly. Leg-breaking tackles must surely involve excessive force, no? Well, apparently not. When Arsenal's Eduardo recently had his leg horribly mangled by a tackle from Birmingham's Martin Taylor, Steve Bruce (a former coach at Birmingham) didn't think it was all that bad and commented "some would say it's not even a yellow card."
The tendency of soccer players and coaches to circle the wagons whenever a player is accused of an atrocious foul is, I suppose, understandable. But it is also unacceptable, because it invites ridicule and, more importantly, it invites the attention of the legal authorities.
The police, as it happens, would rather stay out of these cases, they have enough to occupy themselves as it is. Far better to let the sports tribunals resolve matters.
But the notion of justice is at stake here. If the soccer authorities are seen to be, or felt to be, making light of violent play and serious injuries, then clearly they cannot be trusted to ensure justice within the game. And there will be a feeling -- justified, in my opinion -- that the law of the land is being flouted.
So, some of these cases of serious injury do end up in the court room. This week, such a case was resolved in the Netherlands when the Dutch Supreme Court upheld a six-month suspended prison sentence that had been imposed by a lower court on former Sparta Rotterdam winger Rachid Bouaouzan for a tackle that broke the leg of Go Ahead Eagles player Niels Kokmeijer and ended his career.
The sentence seems nugatory (Bouaouzan's career continues -- he is now with Wigan in the EPL) but the precedent that "a serious foul on a soccer field can amount to grievous bodily harm" is the important aspect of the decision. I would hope it would lead not to more prosecutions, but to fewer egregious fouls.
Serious injuries are, it seems to me, more likely to be caused by mistimed tackles, by shoddy, incompetent, crude, careless play, than by a deliberate attempt to maim.
For a criminal prosecution to succeed, it is necessary to prove an intent to cause harm. That has been almost impossible in the past. Such successful cases as there have been, were usually civil suits brought by the injured player seeking damages, where the matter of intent is not an issue. As often as not, the result is an out-of-court settlement awarding damages to the plaintiff.
Which means that there are precious few legal guidelines to go by. I need to emphasize that I'm talking about playing incidents -- e.g. tackles and other challenges -- and not cases where, for example, a player flagrantly punches another. But even that distinction is one that barely holds up, especially under cross examination in court. A player who jumps for the ball and is seen to violently jab his elbow into his opponent's face ... is that a playing incident? Or a straightforward case of criminal assault?
If you wonder why the question should even need to be asked, consider this: in a court case in England in 1992 John Uzzell sued Gary Blissett for clocking him with an elbow, breaking his cheekbone, causing severe damage to the eye socket, and even threatening his sight. A brutal challenge, then -- but not according to the expert testimony of Graham Kelly, who was at the time the chief executive of the English FA. Kelly claimed such challenges were a regular part of the game, and that he saw some "200 such challenges" in the course of a year. Uzzell lost his case.
When reasonable, educated men find it necessary, or convenient, to defend such violence, there has to be something awry with the sport. Either its rules need changing, or the punishment for the violent challenges and tackles needs to be greatly increased.
The worrying factor remains the speed with which such excesses are excused. One might be forgiven for thinking that, in the Eduardo case, it was Taylor who was the injured party, such has been the determination to absolve him of any blame. Arsene Wenger jumped in quickly to condemn Taylor -- and then later apologized. Carlos Queiroz had his say, then he too apologized to Taylor.
Taylor, who is apparently beyond criticism, says he apologized to Eduardo, but it seems that Eduardo was still partly anesthetized at the time, so does not remember Taylor's hospital visit.
Taylor is back playing. Eduardo is hobbling about on crutches, his soccer future very much in the balance. The episode does not exactly smack of fair play. It is not satisfactory.
Soccer has to get its sense of fair play and justice sorted out. It could start by being far, far stricter on violent tackles. That word -- "tackle" -- is worth some thought. I'll have more to say about that.