By Paul Gardner
The sight we did not want to see -- but, alas, one that seemed destined to be set before our eyes -- arrived on Sunday, at the very end of the Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona game ... Lionel Messi, clutching his head, being carried off the field on a stretcher, his right foot, stripped of shoe and sock, showing a badly swollen ankle.
A few minutes earlier Messi had been fouled by Atletico’s Czech defender Tomas Ujfalusi -- a bad foul, a forceful, ill-timed lunge that earned Ujfalusi a red card. Whether the lunge was aimed at the ball or Messi, only Ujfalusi can say.
The first reports on Messi’s condition are reassuring -- nothing broken, but ligament damage that could mean him being out of action for up to three weeks. That is “good” news only in the sense that it could have been a lot worse.
It will be argued, you bet it will, that Messi’s injury is just one of those things, the sort of accidents that happen in any vigorous activity. We shall be assured that Ujfalusi meant no harm, and that he is really the sweetest guy in the world.
Possibly. But one has had plenty of opportunities to watch Ujfalusi in action over the past years, so there’s not much point trying to paint him as anything other than a highly physical, border-line thug of a player.
But Ujfalusi, in a crucial sense, was unlucky, and it is unfair to vilify him. He was unlucky because his tackle made solid contact with Messi’s ankle. Yet we see similar challenges, from assorted defenders, on Messi in virtually every game he plays. Mostly Messi skips away from them. So they are not fouls. Wrong. They are usually not called as fouls -- either because the referee, rightly, plays the advantage rule or, wrongly, chooses to ignore them. But they are fouls.
This is an impossible dilemma for the referee. Many of those challenges unquestionably come under the heading of “playing in a dangerous manner” -- and if the referee considers “there is an obvious risk of injury” he must call the foul and dole out a yellow card.
But that is another of soccer’s rules that is widely ignored. Indeed, a referee who allows play to continue after such a challenge is more than likely to be praised as one who “lets them play” and does not interrupt the game with what may be criticized as “petty” whistles.
Worse than that, such incidents are likely to be viewed as amusing -- Messi leaving a wildly tackling defender on his backside is certain to evoke a chuckle or two from our TV experts, never mind that the next challenge is likely to be even wilder.
Within that tolerant atmosphere, players like Ujfalusi can flourish, the wild tackling flourishes with them, the cynical chuckling goes on ... and the injuries will surely follow.
Quite probably, the tolerance begins with ignorance of the rule book. Kindly turn to page 113 of the current edition, where you will find the definition of “playing in a dangerous manner” -- which includes the following:
“Playing in a dangerous manner involves no physical contact between the players.” The italics are mine.
One gets quite fed up with TV experts -- usually British, but also the Americans who like to ape them -- remonstrating indignantly about a foul where “there was absolutely no contact.” Read page 113, guys -- all of it.
These are the same guys who never weary of accusing players of “going down too easily” (i.e. diving). They are also likely to excuse foul play because there was “no intent,” or “it was not malicious” -- reasoning that reveals even grosser ignorance of the rules. They are, in short, thoroughly conditioned to sympathize more with the tackler than the tackled, to side with the defender rather than the attacker, to favor physicality over skill.
As it happens, we had two Brits as the ESPN2 commentators for yesterday’s game in which Messi was injured: Adrian Healey alongside Robbie Mustoe, as they say -- or maybe it should be the other way around.
The manner in which that pair treated the foul on Messi yesterday was simply incredible -- and I mean i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e.
It’s worth visiting in some detail because it brutally exposes the mentality that condones fouls.
When Ujfalusi brought Messi down, the foul was not even mentioned -- Mustoe, as is not uncommon with TV experts -- was driveling on about something else, and simply refused to break off and acknowledge the foul. Then we got the news from Healey that Ujfalusi was in trouble -- that’s right, Ujfalusi ... not Messi. Ujfalusi was being red-carded -- all this while we had at least one close up of Messi on the ground, in obvious pain (obvious -- unless, of course, you think that all forwards are divers and fakers).
Mustoe then got a look at the replays and decided that there had, indeed, been a foul, acknowledging merely that Ujfalusi had tripped Messi and that Ujfalusi could have “no complaints” about being sent off.
As Ujfalusi left the field, Healey was offering more sympathy to him because he might “have had a penalty kick” earlier in the game (which was true -- but hardly the remark that the situation called for).
Finally, we heard from Healey that “there’s a problem here for Messi, it seems ...” That remark came one and a half minutes after the foul, and only after we’d seen a close-up of Messi’s swollen ankle.
For 90 seconds, while the best player in the world was stretched out on the field, suffering and being treated, all we got was sympathy for Ujfalusi. It took another 30 seconds, and more replays, for Mustoe to see that Ujfalusi had come down hard on Messi’s ankle.
Why were Healey and Mustoe telling us about Ujfalusi and not Messi? They are surely not callous observers -- so I feel sure that the reason is their inbuilt -- evidently subconscious -- leaning to condone physical play. Something that must have blinded both of them to the severity of Ujfalusi’s challenge (allowing Mustoe to talk right through it).
Did I realize instantly how bad it was? No -- but I could see that it looked nasty, as though it might well be dangerous. I was also aware -- weren’t they? -- that this was not any old player on the receiving end, but the sport’s No. 1 superstar. As Mustoe and Healey were presumably looking at the same, or possibly better, television images as I was (you thought they were in Madrid, maybe?), how could they not be immediately concerned?
Well, for whatever reason, they were not that interested. Which makes them perfect examples of the “this is a man’s game” mentality that welcomes, and indeed encourages, players like Ujfalusi and the fouls they commit.
As, on the whole, I would rather watch Messi in action than Ujfalusi, I do not feel kindly disposed to those who are quite content to treat violent tackling as acceptable, who will shrug their shoulders when it happens and claim that it is a normal feature of the sport.
The road to Messi’s injury -- hopefully not serious, but still bad enough -- has been paved with the opinions of the “let them play” advocates -- people, including many experts, who should know better, who should at least make an effort to understand what “playing in dangerous manner” means, and should encourage referees to penalize it, not to ignore it.