By Paul Gardner
I guess it had to happen. Someone had to get injured at the last minute, injured so badly that he would miss the World Cup. Well, not just someone -- it would be a big star.
And so it turns out. Germany’s Michael Ballack is the unlucky one. Playing for Chelsea in its very last game of the season -- the FA Cup final -- he was the victim of an awful tackle by Portsmouth’s Kevin-Prince Boateng.
The game was barely half-an-hour old. Some will no doubt say that Ballack had invited retaliation from Boateng, because he had virtually assaulted Boateng earlier in the game with a slap to the face.
So there was a buildup here, which referee Chris Foy complacently ignored. That was hardly surprising, we are used by now to the dangerous laxity with which English Premier League referees view violent behavior.
So the game proceeded, evidently with Boateng feeling hard done by. A couple of minutes later, Ballack received the ball in midfield. Boateng was some 12 yards away, but charged at full speed towards Ballack. Ballack had already passed the ball before Boateng arrived, but there was to be no pulling-out of this challenge.
Boateng crashed into Ballack’s standing leg, an ugly collision, late and dangerous. Boateng later apologized for the foul, commenting that “it looked stupid.” The rule book does cover such a challenge (without resorting to the word stupid) when it defines using excessive force as meaning “that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” The definition is followed by the command that a player who uses excessive force must be sent off.
Of course, Boateng was not sent off. Referee Foy evidently saw Boateng’s challenge as merely “reckless” -- i.e. one “showing complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.”
Given that the dividing line between the two offenses is impossible to define with any certainty, I suppose Foy can make a case for his interpretation. Anyway, his version of the incident is in line with the way games are refereed in England. Anywhere else in the world, Ballack would almost certainly have been issued a red card for raising his hands to Boateng’s face earlier. And anywhere else in the world, Boateng’s foul would surely have been greeted with a red card.
Or would it? The question is necessary, because another factor was at work here. This was a big game, a Wembley Stadium showcase game, a grand final. It is surely an unwritten rule that on such occasions, the referee will try to avoid sending players off -- certainly in the first half -- if only because forcing a team to play with 10 men would be likely to “ruin the spectacle.”
Possibly those thoughts -- perfectly natural ones, but technically incorrect ones -- were in Foy’s mind. But the sequence of events that occurred is a good example of the damage that is likely to follow a lenient approach to violent play.
Ballack will miss the World Cup with a severely damaged ankle. Germany and the tournament have lost one of the star players.
The danger of another serious injury to a top player is not yet over. This weekend sees the playing of the Champions League final in Madrid. Bayern Munich vs Inter Milan, a game in which as many as 20 World Cup-bound players could see action.
The truly worrying thing here is the appointment of England’s Howard Webb as the referee. A neutral referee, of course, in terms of nationality. But anything but neutral when it comes to allowing physical play. Webb is, in fact, your typical English referee who is far more used to the straightforward crudities of Blackburn and Wigan and Bolton etc, than he is to the subtleties that Inter and Bayern are capable of.
The danger is that both teams will assume -- will already have assumed -- that Webb’s presence means that physical play will be allowed to dominate this game. And both teams have players who can dish it out, if that’s what the game comes down to.
There is further reason to be worried by Webb. Even in regular season EPL games, he seems to me reluctant to show cards early in the game. That tendency is likely to be increased by the “big game” status of the Champions League final.
Webb has not been impressive in his international games. He needed help to spot a crucial penalty kick for Brazil against Egypt in last year’s Confederations Cup, and he had an awful first half in last season’s Barcelona vs. Bayern game -- showing, as it happens, great leniency to Bayern.
We shall be getting Webb as one of the World Cup referees in South Africa -- so we must keep our fingers crossed and hope that his transformation from an EPL referee to an international referee will begin this weekend in Madrid.