By Paul Gardner
Two recent incidents in English Premier League games have -- as was drearily predictable -- produced yet another shriek of outrage from those who want soccer to be a sport in which kicking opponents is all part of the fun.
On Sunday Manchester City’s defender Vincent Kompany got a straight red card for a, shall we say, robust frontal tackle on Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. Alan Hansen, formerly a Liverpool defender, now a top TV guru, is distraught -- if that red card is not overturned, he says, “it will send out the message that tackling has gone forever.”
Then we got this -- a lament that we’ve heard before -- “Soon, defenders will be frightened to make any tackles at all.” That came from former Chelsea defender Ron Harris, which makes it something of a joke, given Harris’s well-deserved reputation as a violent tackler, and his nickname of “Chopper” Harris.
The defenders of violence invariably feel they have to disguise the true nature of what they are advocating. The brutal “sport” of boxing, has long called itself “the noble art,” and that commendable word, art, crops up again and again -- the art of hunting, the art of self-defense. And, of course, “the art of tackling.”
Kompany’s tackle was a slide tackle, so his studs were showing, which is often considered a no-no these days. As it should be. But the obvious contradiction -- rules that permit sliding tackles, as against the widespread acceptance that studs-up tackles are dangerous, has not been resolved -- indeed, seems to have been barely noticed.
Kompany has been heard from, stating -- irrelevantly -- that “I will never pull out of a tackle, I will never intend to injure a player.” No one is saying that he should avoid tackling, or that he is looking to harm opponents. The objection is that he is using a form of tackling that is inherently dangerous. It needs to be carried out with perfect technique and timing to be risk-free.
And how often does that happen? Not very. Though it may have happened here, with the claim that Kompany achieved perfection and got all ball and none of Jack Wilshere. But how telling that a Reuters article, looking for a comparable example to confirm the “art” of these tackles, had to go back to 1970 to recall a tackle made by England captain Bobby Moore on Brazil’s Jairzinho. Moore, mark you, was generally considered an exceptionally skilled tackler.
Chopper Harris -- whose absence from the playing field since his retirement in the mid-1980s has not exactly damaged the sport -- raises the matter of diving. Of course, diving is the focus of much discussion in England at the moment, with the noisy anti-diving brigade whining of another apocalyptic moment -- not just the end of tackling, but the end of soccer itself. Killed off by the cheating divers, who are now detected everywhere.
“Instead of making villains out of people like Kompany, they need to crack down on the cheating we are seeing,” says Harris, “We see it every week.”
Well, maybe. Certainly “we” -- a “we” I can only interpret as those who want to see diving whenever a player goes down -- saw it the day before the Kompany red card, when Southampton had beaten Aston Villa 1-0 on a penalty kick. A PK that should not have been called because, as replays showed, the tackler, Villa’s Enda Stevens, did not make contact with the Southampton player who went down, Jay Rodriguez.
A dive by Rodriguez, then? No. There is absolutely no evidence that Rodriguez, in going to ground, was “attempting to deceive the referee by ... pretending to have been fouled.” For a start there was no embellishment, there were no theatrics, from Rodriguez.
What happened was that Stevens launched himself into exactly the sort of tackle that Kompany made a day later: jabbing his leg forward, studs up, toward Rodriguez. The difference being that Stevens got his timing wrong -- his tackle was late and his studs were headed directly ... not toward the ball, but towards the ankle of Rodriguez’s weight-bearing right leg. Rodriguez saw it coming -- and just had time to give a hop as he raised his threatened leg. With the inevitable result that he pitched forward.
The referee was fooled -- but not by any trickery by Rodriguez, who was acting in self-preservation. Had he left his right foot on the ground, the chances of an injury, possibly a severe one, were high. His action -- to get out of the way, was surely instinctive. He was not cheating. But The Telegraph newspaper duly reported on “the latest storm over cheating”, The Sun spoke of “the latest cheat row.
As part of this contentious issue in England, we are asked to believe by Chopper Harris and his crew, that soccer is now composed of devious forwards (“prima donnas” he calls them) who use every cheating trick they can think of to fool referees and to outsmart defenders. While the defenders, we must understand, are all forthright, honest players who only rarely commit fouls, and wouldn’t dream of trying to con a referee. If an opponent does happen to get injured by one of their splendid tackles, well, that’s too bad, and anyway, it’s a contact sport isn’t it?
The facts in this division of opinion are overwhelmingly against the doomsayers who moan that tackling will soon disappear from the game. Have they not noticed the stranglehold that defensive play has on the game? Are they unaware that the goalscoring rate has been going steadily downwards for decades?
That can be summarized by simply pointing out that it is now absolutely acceptable in the game to commit tactical fouls (though they are specifically banned by the rules), and that such fouls, a regular part of every game, are openly if cynically described by commentators as “good fouls.” How else is one supposed to interpret that attitude other than to call it a blatant bias in favor of defenders breaking the rules? How else? Well, we could call it what it is ... cheating.
Defenders, including goalkeepers -- maybe especially goalkeepers -- already have it far too easy. For reasons that I do not understand, and for which I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation, they are usually granted “the benefit of the doubt” when things are not clear.
Given all that freedom to ignore the rules, it should not be surprising that they feel they have the right to demand that dangerous studs-up tackling be accepted as just part of the game.
But wiser heads should prevail here. Which makes it tragic that action should really begin with the rule-making body, IFAB, which should make it clear that studs-up tackles are banned -- (which might well mean the end of all slide tackles) -- as either reckless, or because they pose a danger of injuring an opponent. Sadly, the notion that there are wiser heads to be found among the IFAB ranks is not one that can be relied on.