By Paul Gardner
While the relentless search for divers and, now, the newly identified crime of embellishment, proceeds apace, one is left wondering just why so much energy and moral fervor is consumed over this issue ... and so little is devoted to a much more insidious and dangerous aspect of the sport: thuggery.
We have recently had a plea from Dr. Jiri Dvorak, FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer, that players who fake injuries should be banned. I guess he’s suggesting a period of suspension. His reasoning is this: that a referee should not be called upon to make a decision on whether an injury is real or faked. All players claiming to be injured should, in fact really be injured -- leaving the referee in no doubt that it is his responsibility to immediately stop play and allow medical attention.
Clearly, Dr. Dvorak had in mind the two recent cases of players collapsing, during a game, with serious heart problems. Instant and sophisticated treatment saved the life of Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba. Not so for Livorno’s, Piermario Morosini. He was rushed away from the stadium by ambulance, but died before he reached the hospital. Dr. Dvorak’s point is that in such cases, seconds are vital, and the referee should not have to delay his decision while he tries to decide whether a player is in real trouble or merely faking it. He asserts that injury-fakers, by planting those few seconds of doubt in a referee’s mind, are “potentially putting in danger his or her fellow player somewhere else in the world.”
There can be no argument to be made against extreme caution when lives are at stake. But Dr. Dvorak’s argument, attempting to blame injury-fakers for other players’ deaths, is over-reaching. The only conceivable way to avoid delays in vital medical treatment would be for referees to be instructed, or to decide for themselves, that they must halt the game and call for the medics in every case of injury, or apparent injury.
Given that the number of fatalities on the soccer fields is very small, this hardly seems a sensible approach. There is also a very human problem to overcome. Even if, by some miracle, all injury-faking were to cease tomorrow, there would still be cases of phantom injuries. Cases where a player genuinely believes he has been seriously injured -- even though that is not the case. There is no fakery or trickery or cheating involved. How is a player supposed to know whether his acute pain is fleeting or symptomatic of something badly wrong?
Players, in all sports, I think, have a tendency to minimize, or conceal, their injuries because they want to keep on playing. We are only now beginning to discover how damaging that attitude can be to players suffering even apparently minor concussions.
Blaming injury-fakers -- a very tiny percentage of players, I suspect -- for deaths that are equally, or more, likely to be brought on by other, more deeply rooted causes can only divert attention from where the main problem lies.
There is a further problem with Dr. Dvorak’s reasoning. The two cases that I have cited, two extreme and highly tragic cases, involved no violent play, no injury, no injury-faking. Both players collapsed with cardiac arrest, away from the ball. In both cases, there was minimal delay in getting the medics involved.
But, I repeat, despite the gaps in Dr Dvorak’s reasoning, no one -- certainly not I -- is going to argue with his premise of trying to abolish anything that puts players’ safety in danger.
But ... given the almost pious fervor with which faking, diving and embellishing are hunted down, why is it that other menaces -- much clearer, and much more widespread -- that threaten players’ safety are treated so lightly.
In particular, thuggery. Why is violent tackling and reckless play so often treated as an inevitable part of the game, as something to be laughed at, even admired? Why is thuggery not viewed with the same righteous (or is it sanctimonious?) horror that greets the injury-fakers and the divers?
We have before us right now, a prime example of thuggery in action. It is called Nigel de Jong. Manchester City’s Dutch midfielder. In the much touted ManCity vs. ManU game last week, a game that may have decided the English championship race, de Jong came on as a substitute and just eight minutes later got himself yellow-carded for a characteristically clumsy and dangerous foul on Danny Welbeck. Welbeck later left the stadium on crutches. He is considered doubtful for ManU’s next game.
No one should be surprised at that episode. De Jong has broken two legs in his career -- those of the American Stuart Holden and of Newcastle United’s Hatem Ben Arfa; he committed, and got away with, an atrocious karate-kick foul on Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final; his rough-house play led Dutch national team coach Bert van Marwijk to publicly criticize him and drop him from the team.
That is just a selection of de Jong’s biggest hits. To say that he is a menace to the safety of opponents is to state the obvious. But van Marwijk has since recalled him to the Dutch team; and, commenting on de Jong’s latest effort, the foul on Welbeck, TV analyst Steve MacManaman remarked “it’s just a foul, nothing wrong with it.”
De Jong, of course, doesn’t dive or pretend to be injured, something that would have the moralizers calling for him to be burned at the stake. All he does is to cripple opponents -- for that he earns adjectives like “combative” and “feisty,” which are openly intended as terms of praise.
De Jong, I believe, has never received a straight red card in his squalid career. After that spectacular World Cup foul, referee Howard Webb later admitted he should have red-carded de Jong. You could say that de Jong has been lucky. But is it luck that allows him to cut a devastating swath through opponents without incurring appropriate punishment? Or is it rather that de Jong profits from a widespread attitude that finds nothing wrong with reckless physical play - indeed, probably finds it exciting?
There is an enormous gap between the apoplectic moralizing that greets the so-called cheats -- and when did an embellisher ever send an opponent to hospital with a fractured leg? -- and the manly chuckling and unconcealed admiration that far too often greets the thugs.
It is that gap that explains why we hear Dr. Dvorak -- from whom we have a right to expect a level-headed medical opinion -- calling for the banning of injury-fakers, who might be the cause of distant deaths. Dr. Dvorak is rightly concerned with player safety -- yet we hear from Dr. Dvorak no call demanding the banning of thugs for their much closer, much more damaging and much more frequent excesses.