Well, well, now here's a surprise. On Tuesday evening, Middlesbrough's Austrian midfielder Emmanuel Pogatetz committed an awful studs-up foul! On the receiving end of this shining example of how Pogatetz believes soccer should be played was Manchester United's young Brazilian Rodrigo Possebon, who was making his first-team debut for the club. He ended up in the hospital where initial fears that he might have suffered a broken leg were happily proved to be wrong.
It seems that Possebon got off with only a deep two-inch gash just below his knee -- that's right, up near his knee -- and maybe some knee damage. Lucky boy.
As someone who has been watching, with growing alarm, Pogatetz's career at Middlesbrough (this is his fourth year with the club) I regard it as a miracle that something like this hasn't happened before.
By any standards that take soccer skill as a measure of a player's worth, Pogatetz is a pretty awful player. One of those players who gets described as "never shirking a tackle," or "not a stranger to the physical side of the game" and so euphemistically on.
In plain English, he's a dirty player. He does not belong in a first team of the English Premier League -- which claims to be the world's best league. But there he is, at Middlesbrough -- where he's the captain!
It's not as though the Middlesbrough coach, Gareth Southgate, is unaware of Pogatetz's rough-house play. After the foul on Possebon, Southgate -- trying desperately to find something positive to say about his captain -- gave the whole tawdry game away by whining that the tackle was "an unusual aberration for him -- the last two years he's worked incredibly hard on his disciplinary record."
Two years? For two years Southgate has been nurturing a monster and is now surprised when the monster does something monstrous. Confronted with the evidence, Southgate had to admit that the foul was a bad one, and that referee was correct to red-card Pogatetz.
And what of Pogatetz? I've no doubt that Pogatetz is the sweetest guy in the world, and is kind to children and animals and so on. Much the same sort of guy as is Birmingham City's Martin Taylor who -- having mistimed a tackle and sent Arsenal's Eduardo (another Brazilian, incidentally) to hospital with a horrendously mangled ankle -- was quickly sanctified as a player who would never harm a fly.
Right. Pogatetz has now viewed film of his tackle. He had to do that before making a decision, because he was convinced that the tackle was OK as he "won the ball." But the tape evidence was too strong even for Pogatetz. He's admitted the tackle was a bad one, the referee was right to red-card him, and he says he will speak to Rodrigo by telephone and "I will apologize for hurting him."
How nice. Well, it isnice that Pogatetz is contrite, and that his coach has wished Possebon a speedy recovery (speedier, one hopes than Eduardo who was crippled in March and has still not returned to action). But I wonder: despite all the contrition -- will anything change here?
I'm sure it will not. Players of the Pogatetz type are much admired in England. Their assault-and-battery style is considered an asset. Think no further than the recent case of the unspeakable Joey Barton, guilty of a vicious attack on a teammate during a training session, but welcomed back by Newcastle's then coach, the much-admired Kevin Keegan.
ManU coach Alex Ferguson was justifiably incensed by Pogatetz's violent assault on Possebon. But this is the same Ferguson who managed to ignore for years the violence of hiscaptain, Roy Keane who is still the only player that I know of who has publicly admitted, boasted really, that he deliberately set out to hurt a player -- his infamous 2001 tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland.
Southgate's attitude to Pogatetz smacks of crocodile tears. Two years ago, Southgate outspokenly criticized ManU's Ronaldo, accusing him of being a cheat -- specifically for "diving" to get a penalty by which ManU beat Middlesbrough. His attack on Ronaldo was quickly followed by these words from Dutch player George Boateng, who -- all in a friendly spirit, of course -- advised Ronaldo to cut out his fancy trickery before someone "really hurt him." And who was Boateng? Why, at the time he was the Middlesbrough captain. He was succeeded by Pogatetz. And Boateng, just like Pogatetz, is a totally ordinary -- but over-physical -- player.
Southgate -- of course -- reprimanded Boateng, just as he has said he will discipline Pogatetz. The betting here is that any punishment Southgate inflicts will be nugatory.
The impression left is that the English game remains more interested in shielding the thugs than in protecting the skillful players.