By Paul Gardner
Back in December a headline caught my eye. "Goals Galore Expected from Favorable Draw" it read -- referring to the Champions League pairings which had just been decided, pitting Spain’s Sevilla against CSKA Moscow.
I read on. The writer had it all worked out, the styles of both teams, the fact that they had recently been on scoring sprees, and so on, and eventually declared that the two game series might “well be the most open and expansive encounter in recent CL history.”
I always wonder why people make such assured predictions about soccer -- a sport that has a propensity for undermining any attempt to divine what the future holds. Especially so when it comes to scoring goals. So I immediately decided that we were in for two 0-0 ties. It wasn’t that bad, the results were 1-1, then a 2-1 win for CSKA -- but five goals in two games. Could that possibly be construed as “galore”?
Appalling thought, but it just might be, given the overall dearth of goals in the sport. Last week it was deja vu time, with a headline predicting “Goals Aplenty on the Menu for Inter-Juve.” Again, I registered my counter-prediction of 0-0 for Sunday’s game. And this time I got it right. The writer had also foreseen an “entertaining game,” and you could say it was that, though not wildly so.
Generally speaking goals -- preferably an exchange of goals between two attacking teams -- are what makes for an entertaining 90 minutes.
Just to prove that even that pretty banal prediction doesn’t cover everything, I bring you news from Red Bull Arena where, on Saturday night, the Red Bulls somehow or other managed to pull off a 1-0 win against the Kansas City Wizards. A win they definitely did not deserve, for the Wizards had long periods of domination (which included shorter periods when they completely outplayed the Bulls) and got off no fewer than 26 shots, 12 on target. The Bulls had only five shots on target, one of which went in.
To underline soccer’s utter perversity, this was a very entertaining game -- just one goal, but all that goalmouth action provided plenty of entertainment.
And let me throw in another of the sport’s contradictions. This was also something of a gala night for the Bulls’ fans. As the game neared the final whistle, it seemed as though all of the near sellout crowd of 24,799 were on their feet, yelling and stamping their approval of the victory. Now that sort of noise, the full-throated joyous roar that fills a stadium is one we don’t hear too often for soccer in this country. It leaves the warm glow of a well-earned happiness ... but the glow lasted only about 15 minutes under the stadium, when coach Hans Backe appeared before the press and announced that “this was not the type of soccer I want to see.” So while the fans are in raptures, the coach is unhappy with the way his team played.
I side with Backe and his almost shocking honesty. There has to be a way to get wins with better soccer than this. What he did not explain -- though he admitted he had no answer as to why his team could not hold the ball in midfield, and committed so many unforced errors -- was the foul count: Bulls 19, Wizards 6. While this was never a dirty game, it is disturbing to see a team -- a winning team -- committing more than three times as many fouls as its opponents.
Switching continents and leagues -- but not topics, the EPL produced another of those unsavory leg-breaking tackles over the weekend. The victim was Newcastle United’s French forward Hatem Ben Arfa. We are informed that Ben Arfa “will undergo surgery after breaking his left leg ...”, which is a travesty of an explanation of what happened.
Ben Arfa did not break his own leg, he had it broken for him, by a brutal tackle from a certifiable thug of a player: Manchester City’s Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong. The very same De Jong who in March broke Stuart Holden’s leg during the Netherlands-USA friendly, the very same De Jong who karate kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the chest (!) during this year’s World Cup final.
Sadly, this is an area where predictions can be safely made. Players with De Jong’s attitude, unless reined in, will continue to inflict injuries on their opponents. Last month, a tackle by Wolves’ Karl Henry broke the leg of Fulham’s Bobby Zamora. On Saturday Henry was at it again with a dreadful, late tackle that sent Wigan’s Jordi Gomez flying through the air -- but fortunately did not injure him.
Henry, if you please, is the captain of the Wolves. He was not carded for the Zamora foul, but got a straight red for his mugging of Gomez.
As for De Jong, not one of his three appalling episodes elicited a red card from the referees involved. The first two fouls did get yellow-carded, but yesterday’s assault -- and that’s what it was -- was not even considered a foul by English referee Martin Atkinson. This was a shuddering, clumsy “tackle,” violent enough to break Ben Arfa’s leg, and Atkinson can’t even see it as a foul!
As for “seeing” the foul -- that was a dubious pleasure that was cut short for the television audiences, as the director decided to withhold the replays -- too sick-making evidently. That is censorship, of course, and it is exactly what happened when Martin Taylor shattered Eduardo’s ankle in 2008, and when Ryan Shawcross broke Aaron Ramsey’s leg this past February.
That may be intended as protection for the susceptible viewer, but it is equally a form of protection for the player committing the violent foul, as it prevents the public from seeing the dreadful results of the violence. Heck, seeing a mangled leg might even cause people to demand stronger action from the EPL or from the referees, or possibly even from the coaches who repeatedly condone the mayhem.
Well, we can’t have that of sort thing, it might upset the image of the world’s greatest league (quite a selling point, that). So the images are considered too horrible for us to see. But no such censorship applies to the dreadful, sickly, pseudo-weepy words that are put forward by the culprit’s coaches, excusing the utterly inexcusable. One might suggest that these pathetic ramblings are even more puke-making than the images of the foul itself. Brian Kidd, Manchester City’s assistant coach -- knowing full well of De Jong’s record of previous violence -- tells us “Every one knows that Nigel is as honest as the day is long ... There was no malice in it, definitely not. Nigel’s not that type of lad.”
No one is saying De Jong is dishonest or malicious. But two broken legs in six months is surely all the proof that’s needed to define De Jong as a recklessly dangerous rule-breaker. Or should we await another serious injury before condemning him to a lengthy suspension?
Are we really expected to pay any attention at all to Kidd’s drivel? Enough is enough. Let Kidd and the other EPL coaches ask themselves -- what has happened to Eduardo’s career since his injury and the one year lay off? Will young Aaron Ramsey be the same player when he gets back onto the field? Or Hatem Ben Arfa?