By Paul Gardner
Despite an ambiguously optimistic pronouncement from the surgeon, it seems likely that Colombia's Radamel Falcao, now recovering from an operation to repair a torn ACL, will not be fit in time to play in the World Cup.
Well, these things happen, you know. I can give you a mountain of pithy quotes from coaches and players who seem never to be more at home than when telling us that this is a man’s game, it’s not for ballerinas, it’s a contact sport, you have to learn to take the knocks, and so on.
Falcao, by that argument, knew the risks, is extremely well paid to take them, and it’s just bad luck that he’s suffered a serious injury so close to a World Cup in which he would likely be major star on what is probably the strongest team Colombia has ever had.
With Falcao -- one of a small elite group of world-class goalscorers -- Colombia is a genuine contender. Colombia finished second to Argentina in the South American qualifying group; in 13 games, Falcao scored 9 goals, one third of Colombia’s total. Only Uruguay’s Luis Suarez (11 goals) and Argentina’s Lionel Messi (10) scored more.
Without Falcao, it is unlikely that Colombia will be thought of as a team to be feared. His injury is a huge blow to Colombia’s chances. Quite apart from the fact that the World Cup may be deprived of one of its most exciting players.
Bad luck indeed for Falcao and Colombia. But is it really bad luck? I don’t think so. Because Falcao’s injury came during a game that he should never have been playing in.
A French Cup game, pitting his team Monaco against a team of amateurs from Chasselay, a small town (population under 3,000) in Eastern France. Obviously, a ridiculous mismatch, but one is not supposed to say that.
What one is encouraged to think, and to say, is that this was yet another heart-warming example of cup soccer, that wonderful system that allows clubs from all levels to play in the same competition. Based, of course, on the English FA Cup (and copied, of course, by the USA with its Open Cup).
Here was little Chasselay getting its moment in the spotlight, its chance to pull off a major upset by defeating the second best team in France, with all its highly paid professionals. That is the sort of story - the Cinderella story - that devotees of cup soccer have in mind when they talk of “the glamour” of cup play.
This so-called glamour is born of the wishful thinking of nostalgia. It is not something that is seen too often in reality these days. The gap in quality between the small teams and the large (read rich) teams is now far greater than it was back in those dim and distant glamour days.
When a small team takes on a big team nowadays there is not only a yawning gap in prestige and in salaries, there is a worrying difference in the caliber of the soccer played. Worrying, because there lies danger.
The speed and sophistication of the top-level modern game is beyond the grasp of most clubs not playing first division soccer. The further down the soccer ladder you go, the more robust the game gets. I mean, more physical, less skilled. Cruder, if you like.
These “glamour” encounters, with the Davids confronting the Goliaths, are dangerous for skilled players. I see absolutely no reason to assume that maliciousness is part of the danger. What causes the problem is simply that the players of the lesser teams simply can’t cope. They try their best, honestly -- but are made to look inept and, well, amateurish. Their tackles are the problem -- frequently late, often clumsy.
You can see the tackle that injured Falcao online. It is the tackle of an inferior player, late, inexpert, made with the wrong foot. It comes more from the side than from behind -- and maybe is the more dangerous for that -- the knee does not bend sideways. The name of the player making the tackle is known, of course it is -- you can find it online -- but I don’t see any necessity to mention it here.
Player X -- along with Falcao -- were put in an impossible situation, a dangerous mismatch that produced a serious injury. What’s the point of blaming Player X? Even his apparently callous post-game statement that the incident had “ruined the game for me” was no doubt intended to demonstrate his remorse.
We know something about these calamitous clashes between skill and inexperience. In MLS, in April 2011, we saw David Ferreira of Dallas get his ankle badly mangled by a reckless tackle from an inexperienced Vancouver defender. Ferreira was out of the game for a year, and never seemed to me to recover his full, sparkling form.
More recently - last May -- we had a season-ending injury to the Columbus Crew’s Eddie Gaven. The same fate as Falcao -- Gaven suffered a torn ACL. And the same situation – a cup mismatch between the Crew and the Dayton Dutch Lions of the USL. And we have the word of the Crew coach Robert Warzycha that the tackle on Gaven was “not malicious.” Nevertheless it was highly dangerous.
The obvious way to prevent these dangerous situations is to ban the cup format entirely, or to modify it and make it unlikely that the top pro clubs will meet up with manifestly inferior teams. But that, of course, would remove most of the glamour aspect.
The coaches of the pro clubs are well aware of the danger to their stars. But what to do? Should the coach decide to field a reserve team -- probably capable of winning the game -- he will be accused of slighting the smaller club, and of depriving its fans of an opportunity of seeing the big stars in action.
If not a reserve team, then a team without the really big names -- but that, too, smacks of condescension towards the small team. The players themselves may feel that it is right thing to do, a true sporting gesture, to play in these games.
But the games will continue because they mean money -- not so much for the big clubs, for them the rewards are peanuts -- but for the small clubs. The soccer argument -- that the cup is all about the fame and the glory to be earned from beating Arsenal or Liverpool -- as so often in the modern game, must now take second place to the financial argument. It’s the money that matters.