By Paul Gardner
Soccer in "mortal danger"? That's what a recent headline said, quoting the words of UEFA president Michel Platini. Seems a bit strong, but overkill is justified when a crisis threatens and no one is paying attention. Platini evidently feels strongly enough about this to dramatize his warning.
As I do believe that soccer has a serious, if not quite life-threatening, problem, I agree with Platini. Or so I thought. But, getting past the headline, I find that Platini is talking about game-fixing. Not a topic that I have any wish to belittle, but not the one that I had in mind.
Game-fixing -- allied with the so-called “illegal” betting -- is, after all, hardly a uniquely soccer problem. It applies to every sport -- even cricket, where “spot-fixing” (which may or may not alter the outcome of a game) is becoming bothersome -- and strikes at the roots of every competitive sport.
The problem is so widespread that it is not one that soccer can solve internally -- countering game-fixing entails police-force activity on an international scale. It means hunting down well-organized and well-financed criminal gangs -- not an activity that soccer is in any way equipped to handle.
That is not what I was thinking of -- something much more soccer-specific was on my mind. Another headline -- this one appeared yesterday -- raises my point: “I never intended to hurt Cristiano Ronaldo.”
The words are those of Croatian midfielder, Jerko Leko. Playing for Dinamo Zagreb against Real Madrid in a Champions League game, Leko put on a thoroughly thuggish performance, climaxed with an awful “tackle” on Ronaldo that left the Real star needing four stitches in his ankle.
Bad enough -- but made worse by pathetic refereeing from Norway’s Svein Oddvar Moen, who failed to red-card Leko; in fact, didn’t even caution him.
That sequence of events splendidly captures what I see as a mortal threat to soccer. But that episode was merely a moment or two in a whole game that underlined just how badly the sport has gone astray. A thoroughly unpleasant game in which Dynamo made its intentions clear from the start: it would turn this into a physical encounter, it would make things as rough as possible -- which means as rough as the referee would allow. And Moen allowed almost everything.
So we get one of the world’s top players being kicked from pillar to post while Moen does nothing about it. And we get Leko telling us that the tackle was “unfortunate” and that he didn’t mean to hurt Ronaldo. The eternal excuse of the thugs. Let’s believe him. I, for one, do find it very difficult to believe that players set out to deliberately injure others.
But intention has nothing to do with this. The more revealing part of Leko’s statement was his admission that Dinamo had decided that playing the game “a little harder than usual” was the only way to stop Real Madrid: “If we had given them space, their talent and individual advantage would have exposed us.”
This is ingenuous, an excuse for making physical intimidation the tactic of the day. Maybe Dinamo always plays that way -- I haven’t seen enough of them to know -- but probably not, as we have Leko’s words that this was “a little harder than usual.”
So, Cristiano, forget about your “individual talent,” Dinamo will counter that by chopping you down whenever they can, and if you get injured in the process, which seems quite likely, well it’s all part of the game, so please stop whining about it.
That, then, was Dinamo’s approach. Hardly an original one. It is, in fact, precisely the approach that Real Madrid itself adopted -- under the guidance of Jose Mourinho -- in recent games against Barcelona. So there is a sense that Dinamo’s rough play was nothing more than chickens coming home to roost, and that Real are in no position to complain.
But that rather cynical view alters nothing. The tactic of deliberately roughing up opponents, whoever employs it, must be treated as an unacceptable way of playing the game. It should be identified early by the referee (and let’s face it, that is not the most difficult task in the world) and harshly dealt with. Yet here we had a referee who evidently shared that approach!
Referee Moen had cautioned Leko at the end of the first half, but then failed to send him off -- either with a straight red or a second yellow -- for his “unfortunate” tackle on Ronaldo. But Moen did manage to award a second yellow to Real’s Marcelo ... for diving! How’s that for tough officiating?
There you have it -- the insidious attitudes that constitute a “mortal danger” to the sport. But this is not an external threat like the game-fixing targeted by Platini, this is a danger within the sport itself.
As such it is something that soccer can deal with. It is entirely within soccer’s powers to banish violent physical play from the game. It is in the sport’s own interest to work toward that aim. Yet it does so in a way that can only be described as half-hearted.
It comes down to this: do we want a sport that features the skills of a Ronaldo? Or one that features the thuggery of Leko? The two versions are not compatible. If Leko and his like are allowed to flourish -- in the way that he was allowed to do in this game -- then this is no game for the skilled players.
The only good thing about the Dynamo vs. Real game was that Real won it. Just as the only good thing about last year’s World Cup final was that Spain managed to beat the appalling Dutch. But are those the sort of games we want? Games in which soccer talent is crushed by physical force?
The question needs to be answered, because there is enough evidence to suggest that there are plenty of people around, within the sport, who do want that sort of game. They must not be allowed to prevail. They should be told loud and clear, from the top, from FIFA -- and, indeed, from Platini -- that their approach is unacceptable.
Over 100 years ago, when soccer was still in its birth pains, the same split surfaced, between those who wanted a physical game (one in which players were permitted to “hack” -- i.e. to kick opponents) and those who preferred skill. The hackers were voted down, out of the sport -- and they departed to develop their own game, to be called rugby.
But the hackers have never really gone away. They remain a subversive presence in a sport that is far too tolerant of their influence. It is precisely that influence that, quite deliberately, turns games that should be showcases of what is best in the sport into degrading pitched battles.
This time, Ronaldo was the target for the hackers. He escaped, just, with a severely gashed ankle. Next time? It’s worth considering who might be the next victim, because the obvious one, the player who likes to dribble the ball, the player who makes life so difficult for defenders, in Lionel Messi.
Is there a soccer fan anywhere in the world who has not at some moment feared for Messi’s safety? Who has not had a vision of a badly injured Messi leaving the field on a stretcher?
Is that what we want? Messi, or Ronaldo, or any other skilled player, a victim of violent play. And a victim of his own sport, which cannot summon up the guts to take the issue seriously.