The Axel Witsel affair raises a thorny problem, one that that soccer does not handle well. Witsel, a 21-year-old Belgian player from Standard Liege, is facing a two-game suspension for getting himself red-carded during the weekend's derby against local rivals Anderlecht.
But there are considerable complications involved. Witsel's offense was a sliding tackle on Roland Juhasz -- a nasty, studs-up challenge that inevitably set off a furious spate of protests from the Anderlecht players. No doubt, they felt more than justified for their actions, because barely five months ago Witsel had been guilty of a similar offense against them.
On that occasion he had seriously injured another Anderlecht defender, Marcin Wasilewski, leaving him with a compound fracture of his leg after a vicious tackle. The Belgian authorities slapped Witsel with a 10-game ban, which quickly got reduced to eight games.
At that point, Witsel could consider himself a trifle fortunate, because he had already been in trouble earlier in 2009, when he was hit with a four-game international ban by FIFA after a dangerous foul committed during a Belgium vs. Bosnia World Cup qualifier.
Witsel, then, had already done enough to earn a reputation as a lethal serial fouler before this weekend's episode. Which makes it difficult to understand why he has received only a two-match ban for his latest crime.
The most likely reason for the leniency would seem to be that the Belgian authorities are siding with the Standard president Pierre Francois who claimed that the referee got it wrong, that Witsel's foul was not that bad, and that the red card was "undeserved."
I'd say the foul - as seen on YouTube - is bad enough, certainly reckless, and borderline red. So the referee then comes under suspicion of punishing Witsel severely because of his reputation. That is not generally approved of -- it is usually maintained that a referee's decision should be made solely on what he sees in front of him, and that a player's character or previous behavior should not enter into the matter.
Certainly, a strong argument can be made for that approach. In legal terms, it conforms to the accepted practice that if an accused has a record of previous crimes, they should not be revealed to the jury during his trial. If a guilty verdict is reached, then the judge can consider those previous crimes when deciding on the punishment.
The difference -- a vital one -- is that a referee is both jury and judge, and he has to act in both capacities in just a few seconds.
In the Witsel case it is inconceivable that the referee was ignorant of Witsel's record (his brutal foul on Wasilewski had made banner headlines in Belgium). So why shouldn't the referee take that record into account?
After all, referees have the power to punish for previous crimes within one game -- the "persistent infringement" clause clearly allows them to do that. It is also difficult to accept that similar fouls should always get the same punishment -- whether committed by a known thug or by a player with a reputation for clean play.
The statement from Standard's president is obviously special pleading, even though he may have a point over the issuing of the red card. Club officials -- particularly coaches -- always feel obliged to defend their players, however atrocious the fouls. One recalls then Manchester City coach Stuart Pearce extravagantly lauding Joey Barton's character in February 2007 after the player had committed a particularly brutal assault on teammate Ousmane Dabo.
There seems always to be unbounded sympathy for the violent players. The reduction of Witsel's 10-game ban should not surprise. That, too, raises memories, from 1983 -- of Diego Maradona in hospital with a shattered ankle, while the player who caused the injury, Andoni Goikoetxea, was having his ban successively reduced from 18 games to 10, and then to seven.
The question for soccer to answer is this: how much violence from one player should be considered enough to warrant a lengthy ban? Witsel's behavior suggests he has learned little from his previous punishments.
Whether or not his latest foul warranted a red card is debatable. But a lack of responsibility runs through this case. It is surely undeniable that for a player with two lengthy, and recent, suspensions for violent play to commit another reckless challenge is almost criminally irresponsible. Equally irresponsible is the decision to hand down only a two-game suspension.