By Paul Gardner
So no sooner do I tell you that coaches never say anything nasty about their own players -- just 10 days ago -- then up pops Bert van Marwijk, the coach of the Dutch national team, to seriously berate one of his players.
The tackle that Nigel de Jong put on the American Stuart Holden -- it sent Holden to the hospital with a broken leg -- was too much for van Marwijk, who ranted “As soon as the game was over, I got hold of him [de Jong] and I told him ... he really must get this out of his system.” Looking ahead to South Africa, he added, “A foul like the one Nigel committed on Holden can cost us the World Cup.”
Well, it would have been nice had van Marwijk expressed some sympathy for Holden, who will be sitting on the sidelines for some two months now, and may well miss out on the World Cup altogether.
Van Marwijk’s criticism of de Jong is welcome, whatever his reasons for voicing it. There was more, because van Marwijk jumped in with both feet, studs up, to lash out at English referees. De Jong plays in England, for Manchester City, and van Marwijk sees England as the land of lenient referees who regularly permit the sort of reckless tackles that he is complaining about: “Nigel plays in England and that is the league where referees allow players to do so much more.”
Well, he’s certainly got that right. His criticism, of course, came right after Ryan Shawcross’ deplorable “tackle” that broke the leg of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey. It is really quite extraordinary to read the opinions of far too many British commentators bending themselves into all sorts of shapes to convince us that Shawcross did nothing wrong. These included calls that Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger should apologize to Shawcross for criticizing him.
This choice passage is from former Man U and Scotland player Lou Macari: “What got my goat about events at Stoke on Saturday was not the tackle, but Arsene Wenger’s ridiculous reaction to it ... I’ve got to say I felt sorry for Shawcross.”
Yes, there is a sadistic mentality at work in the English game. I don’t think the referees are responsible for it, but they do, inevitably, reflect it.
We’ve had plenty of examples of foreign players arriving in England and being literally shocked at what referees allow. Just two recent examples: Fernando Torres: “the referees only give you a foul once you are bleeding,” and Carlos Tevez’s criticism of the referees is implicit in his comment on English defenders: “You don't see much dribbling here, you only get one touch otherwise they eat your legs.”
There is also some statistical proof, should you trust soccer stats. These are the per-game figures for red and yellow cards given in major European leagues:
Spain La Liga: 5.04 0.37
Italy Serie A: 4.24 0.31
Germany Bundesliga 1: 3.85 0.20
France Ligue 1: 3.60 0.22
England Premier League: 3.05 0.17
There’s no need to analyze those figures in detail. You have two possible explanations -- either the English Premier League is the cleanest league in the world, or the EPL referees allow a much rougher game. I doubt whether there’ll be many takers for the first explanation.
But, while I praise van Marwijk for speaking out, while I fully agree with him on the dangerous deficiencies of English referees, there is a problem here. The same old problem about coaches not seeing the faults of their own players. For on the Dutch national team there is one Mark van Bommel -- who happens to be van Marwijk’s son-in-law.
But that is not the attribute of van Bommel that I’m drawing attention to. I’m talking about the fact that van Bommel is a much rougher player than de Jong, and has a record of confrontations with opposing players. Indeed, within the past year I have seen two occasions when van Bommel, playing for Bayern Munich, could easily have been, and in my opinion should have been, red-carded for thuggish fouls (both in Champions League games – vs. Barcelona, and vs. Fiorentina).
It’s probably worth mentioning that van Bommel’s foul in the game against Barcelona -- a brutal elbow to the face of Lionel Messi -- went unpunished. It was committed slap-bang in front of the referee ... an Englishman, Howard Webb, whose work we shall be able to admire, or maybe not, during the upcoming World Cup. It would be intriguing to know what van Marwijk thinks of Webb’s refereeing.