The ugly truth behind Lionel Messi's injury

By Paul Gardner

The sight we did not want to see -- but, alas, one that seemed destined to be set before our eyes -- arrived on Sunday, at the very end of the Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona game ... Lionel Messi, clutching his head, being carried off the field on a stretcher, his right foot, stripped of shoe and sock, showing a badly swollen ankle.

A few minutes earlier Messi had been fouled by Atletico’s Czech defender Tomas Ujfalusi -- a bad foul, a forceful, ill-timed lunge that earned Ujfalusi a red card. Whether the lunge was aimed at the ball or Messi, only Ujfalusi can say.

The first reports on Messi’s condition are reassuring -- nothing broken, but ligament damage that could mean him being out of action for up to three weeks. That is “good” news only in the sense that it could have been a lot worse.

It will be argued, you bet it will, that Messi’s injury is just one of those things, the sort of accidents that happen in any vigorous activity. We shall be assured that Ujfalusi meant no harm, and that he is really the sweetest guy in the world.

Possibly. But one has had plenty of opportunities to watch Ujfalusi in action over the past years, so there’s not much point trying to paint him as anything other than a highly physical, border-line thug of a player.

But Ujfalusi, in a crucial sense, was unlucky, and it is unfair to vilify him. He was unlucky because his tackle made solid contact with Messi’s ankle. Yet we see similar challenges, from assorted defenders, on Messi in virtually every game he plays. Mostly Messi skips away from them. So they are not fouls. Wrong. They are usually not called as fouls -- either because the referee, rightly, plays the advantage rule or, wrongly, chooses to ignore them. But they are fouls.

This is an impossible dilemma for the referee. Many of those challenges unquestionably come under the heading of “playing in a dangerous manner” -- and if the referee considers “there is an obvious risk of injury” he must call the foul and dole out a yellow card.

But that is another of soccer’s rules that is widely ignored. Indeed, a referee who allows play to continue after such a challenge is more than likely to be praised as one who “lets them play” and does not interrupt the game with what may be criticized as “petty” whistles.

Worse than that, such incidents are likely to be viewed as amusing -- Messi leaving a wildly tackling defender on his backside is certain to evoke a chuckle or two from our TV experts, never mind that the next challenge is likely to be even wilder.

Within that tolerant atmosphere, players like Ujfalusi can flourish, the wild tackling flourishes with them, the cynical chuckling goes on ... and the injuries will surely follow.

Quite probably, the tolerance begins with ignorance of the rule book. Kindly turn to page 113 of the current edition, where you will find the definition of “playing in a dangerous manner” -- which includes the following:

“Playing in a dangerous manner involves no physical contact between the players.” The italics are mine.

One gets quite fed up with TV experts -- usually British, but also the Americans who like to ape them -- remonstrating indignantly about a foul where “there was absolutely no contact.” Read page 113, guys -- all of it.

These are the same guys who never weary of accusing players of “going down too easily” (i.e. diving). They are also likely to excuse foul play because there was “no intent,” or “it was not malicious” -- reasoning that reveals even grosser ignorance of the rules. They are, in short, thoroughly conditioned to sympathize more with the tackler than the tackled, to side with the defender rather than the attacker, to favor physicality over skill.

As it happens, we had two Brits as the ESPN2 commentators for yesterday’s game in which Messi was injured: Adrian Healey alongside Robbie Mustoe, as they say -- or maybe it should be the other way around.

The manner in which that pair treated the foul on Messi yesterday was simply incredible -- and I mean i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e.

It’s worth visiting in some detail because it brutally exposes the mentality that condones fouls.

When Ujfalusi brought Messi down, the foul was not even mentioned -- Mustoe, as is not uncommon with TV experts -- was driveling on about something else, and simply refused to break off and acknowledge the foul. Then we got the news from Healey that Ujfalusi was in trouble -- that’s right, Ujfalusi ... not Messi. Ujfalusi was being red-carded -- all this while we had at least one close up of Messi on the ground, in obvious pain (obvious -- unless, of course, you think that all forwards are divers and fakers).

Mustoe then got a look at the replays and decided that there had, indeed, been a foul, acknowledging merely that Ujfalusi had tripped Messi and that Ujfalusi could have “no complaints” about being sent off.

As Ujfalusi left the field, Healey was offering more sympathy to him because he might “have had a penalty kick” earlier in the game (which was true -- but hardly the remark that the situation called for).

Finally, we heard from Healey that “there’s a problem here for Messi, it seems ...” That remark came one and a half minutes after the foul, and only after we’d seen a close-up of Messi’s swollen ankle.

For 90 seconds, while the best player in the world was stretched out on the field, suffering and being treated, all we got was sympathy for Ujfalusi. It took another 30 seconds, and more replays, for Mustoe to see that Ujfalusi had come down hard on Messi’s ankle.

Why were Healey and Mustoe telling us about Ujfalusi and not Messi? They are surely not callous observers -- so I feel sure that the reason is their inbuilt -- evidently subconscious -- leaning to condone physical play. Something that must have blinded both of them to the severity of Ujfalusi’s challenge (allowing Mustoe to talk right through it).

Did I realize instantly how bad it was? No -- but I could see that it looked nasty, as though it might well be dangerous. I was also aware -- weren’t they? -- that this was not any old player on the receiving end, but the sport’s No. 1 superstar. As Mustoe and Healey were presumably looking at the same, or possibly better, television images as I was (you thought they were in Madrid, maybe?), how could they not be immediately concerned?

Well, for whatever reason, they were not that interested. Which makes them perfect examples of the “this is a man’s game” mentality that welcomes, and indeed encourages, players like Ujfalusi and the fouls they commit.

As, on the whole, I would rather watch Messi in action than Ujfalusi, I do not feel kindly disposed to those who are quite content to treat violent tackling as acceptable, who will shrug their shoulders when it happens and claim that it is a normal feature of the sport.

The road to Messi’s injury -- hopefully not serious, but still bad enough -- has been paved with the opinions of the “let them play” advocates -- people, including many experts, who should know better, who should at least make an effort to understand what “playing in dangerous manner” means, and should encourage referees to penalize it, not to ignore it.

19 comments about "The ugly truth behind Lionel Messi's injury".
  1. Salvador Rivera , September 20, 2010 at 1:37 a.m.

    It was a bad tackle..I'm a forward and I think if you can't get the ball let it go.don't foul the player..refs should be harder on bad fouls and give more cards.

  2. Kenneth Elliott, September 20, 2010 at 5:36 a.m.

    A simple alteration of the rule, and the interpretation of allowable tackles, would help to ease this problem, I think. Most, if not all, of these horrendous fouls that end up in severe injury occur as the defender is lunging into the dribbler, tackling into him as it were. Tackling into a player should not be allowed. Any tackle on a player that is at an angle greater than 0° should be called, with severe contact warranting a caution or a sending off depending on circumstances. Only tackles in which the defender is going in the same direction as a dribbler should be allowed, and here is where the tackling from behind part comes into play, because if the tackler doesn't get out in front of the dribbler to take the ball, then he is still committing a foul.

    We all marvel at attacking players and their extraordinary skills, but I also marvel at those players who are able to sublimely lift the ball off the attacker by sliding forward past the dribbler and nicking the ball with his instep, often retaining possession as the dribbler goes tumbling when he runs into the tackler's legs. It's one of the beautiful parts of the game, and is especially sweet as it belongs to the defensive side of things.

    I agree with Paul about the commentators who talk about intent. Intent certainly should be called, but the rules don't say that if there is no intent it's okay to break a leg. Intent to harm or not, a late tackle should be called, with intent determing the level of the call between a restart, a booking, and a sending off.

  3. Bill Anderson, September 20, 2010 at 8:06 a.m.

    The uglier truth is that both teams were at each other throughout the match, and the center official did little to establish control of the players. He has a whistle, a tiny book, and two cards (yellow and red). Anyone who watched the entire match and not just a video clip of the one foul, would understand in better context. There was plenty of frustration at the overall tone of the event.

  4. The Real Pico, September 20, 2010 at 8:12 a.m.

    Just to illustrate a cultural different, the call for the same game in ESPNDeportes was the completely opposite! As soon as the Ujfalusi tackled Messi the announcers cringed and denounced the perpetrator, voiced their concern for the Barcalona player, and noted that such type of tackling has no place in the game. But above all, their focus was on Messi. Cheers

  5. Thomas Hosier, September 20, 2010 at 9:23 a.m.

    It all begins with youth referees who allow mauling and mugging because "they are just learning!" This certainly allows less talented players to negate the skills of the more talented players. Stop the mugging and thugging from top to bottome. Let them play but make them play properly.

  6. Jim Romanski, September 20, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.


    I couldn't agree with you more. I don't think the announcers were callous but simply grew up with this kind of physical game as the norm. The beautiful game is not well served by this. I much prefer watching attacking soccer than physical challenges. I think the German squad at the world cup were the only team to do both very well and stay mostly within the rules. It made for exciting play and very good defense too.

    I’m frustrated that too many here in the US hire these English coaches thinking that they are the experts. They’ve grown up with a brand of soccer that isn’t pretty and don’t follow the rules. They can’t see this since they’ve never known it any other way.

    Keep fighting the good fight. It’s time they started enforcing the rules and bring soccer back to what it’s supposed to be…the beautiful game.

  7. Carl Walther, September 20, 2010 at 11:13 a.m.

    Ujfalusi is, and has always been a thug player. A big part of the blame should be put on clubs that knowingly hire "players" like him. They know what they are going to do. And he (and others like him) know what the club (coach) expect them to do---hurt other players. FIFA officials sitting in their ivory towers, are morally incapable of dealing with this shame.

  8. James Froehlich, September 20, 2010 at 11:17 a.m.

    I agree with the gist of all of the above comments but would add one additional element that I would cynically call the "hockey syndrome". I am not a fan of hockey generally, NHL specifically. However when the Olympics come around it seems that the overall style of hockey changes, more skill, much less fighting. This I actually enjoy. Unfortunately, it appears that in order to attract certain type of fans hockey executives promote the pugilistic aspects of the game. You know the saying, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out". I believe that the leaders of soccer, nationally and internationally similarly feel that emphasizing or condoning this type of play is necessary to appeal to certain types of fans. Unfortunately, they are probably right. Just look at the periodic comments from readers of this blog!! Don't expect any real response from the soccer hierarchy until their pocket books are ALL affected.

  9. David Mont, September 20, 2010 at 12:12 p.m.

    2 The Real Pico: I strongly suspect that a very different reaction from the ESPN Deportes commentators was caused by the fact that Messi is from Argentina and Ujfalusi is a Czech.

  10. Kenneth Elliott, September 20, 2010 at 1:55 p.m.

    Mr. Froehlich has certainly hit the nail on the head. I so often do not consider that aspect of the sport simply because I don't want to believe that it's true, but true it is, and until people stop watching the game, and the reason is perceived to be the unnecessary mauling of the superstars, the playing of the game will continue in its current iteration. I have no idea for the exact numbers, but indications seem to be that more and more folks are watching the beautiful, often brutal, game. The roughest, grittiest, basest league in the world, the EPL, has as many, if not more, viewers than any on the planet. I can't imagine that anything will change anytime soon unless some idealistic official within the confines of FIFA hierarchy, who has enough tenacity and desire to effect a change can get something done. Perhaps Platini? Some young up and comer of which we are not yet aware? We can only hope.

  11. Caroline Lambert, September 20, 2010 at 2:29 p.m.

    There is a qualification to three of the fouls listed in Law 12 that could be used to help address these types of fouls. "Strikes or attempts to strike", "Kicks or attempts to kick", and "Trips or attempts to trip" (an opponent in each case). Referees don't call the "attempts", either because they forget that wording, or because it implies judging intent, which is tough to do. It would be better to invoke these three fouls rather than calling it "dangerous play" because they can involve contact, and the sanction is a DFK or PK rather than IFK. This wording has been in the laws for a long time and must be there for a reason; too bad referees don't make use of it.

  12. Brian Herbert, September 20, 2010 at 3:48 p.m.

    Thanks Paul for your honest appraisal. First, I would like to see referees have the ability to call a "delayed" foul in the case of playing advantage. In hockey, they have a rule where as soon as the team that was fouled loses possession or scores, the foul is called. Have the ref pull out the particular card and hold it up until the end of the "advantage" so all are on notice that a foul is pending. Second, I was hanging out with my U11 son and a teammate in the back yard last week, and I was shocked when they started telling me how their coach frequently refuses to call blatant fouls in practice. One of these fouls had recently resulted in a player having his arm broken - in practice! The three players who the boys told me are the most flagrant foulers are also the ones often rewarded with roster slots on the "A" team (its an academy format where there is roster movement each week across A, B, and C squads). All I can do is try to teach my son anticipation (aikido-style). I do worry though, since he had another hat-trick yesterday, who will be gunning for him next?

  13. Jim Miller, September 20, 2010 at 8:25 p.m.

    Don't forget that Mascherano came on in the waning minutes of the game and within 30 seconds received a yellow card for kicking an opposing player in the knee. You could see that coming from a mile away.

  14. Dan Phillips, September 20, 2010 at 8:27 p.m.

    I can't believe that USSF blew it again not signing Klinsmann because of control issues. Gulati should be fired!

  15. James Froehlich, September 20, 2010 at 10:34 p.m.

    Jim Miller -- the announcers discussed how Mascherano was going to have to learn that what was ACCEPTABLE to EPL referees would not be tolerated in la Liga. la Liga -- the only league that protects its superstars --- oops !! Messi ---- the bubble burst.

  16. matt lee, September 21, 2010 at 9:02 a.m.

    All this is well and good except that you see players rithing in pain after the smallest of fouls. Unless you see actual damaging contact, it's hard to sympathize with players who dive and make the most out of the smallest contact. Players feel, and i think its rightfully so, that if an attacker is going to simply flop on the floor when he has the chance, then why not make the most out of each challenge.

  17. Michael Dade, September 21, 2010 at 1:37 p.m.

    The diving and theatrics also contribute to not taking real injuries seriously at first glance. PG does not acknowledge that in this article. Though he may be correct that the commentators are inclined toward physical play, my natural response is to doubt the authenticity of the player on the ground unless the foul was clearly flagrant.

  18. Brian Herbert, September 22, 2010 at 3:25 p.m.

    Matt and Michael make good points: referees need to increase vigilance on both sides of the ball or it won't work. But in my opinion, Messi is not one of the divers. Diving and reckless fouls are related, and not good for the sport's growth. For example, when I watched some World Cup matches with friends who are not avid soccer viewers, they commented on the excessive drama. That makes it harder to get mainstream sports viewers in the USA to tune in to "our" sport. Our idols here tend to be the guys who gut it out and have long histories of taking the pain and playing on: Brett Favre, Cal Ripken, Walter Payton, etc. If US sports fans think soccer players are all actors, we're screwed.

  19. Karl Ortmertl, September 25, 2010 at 12:48 a.m.

    If soccer relied on the "beautiful game" to woo fans and, therefore, make money, you can bet that officials would be protecting the brilliant stars like Messi and making sure that crap like these tackles don't happen. Swift and severe punishment. However, like NFL football, gambling is what makes the soccer world go round financialy. It almost doesn't matter how the game is played. For purists like myself, who watch the game for the pleasure of seeing great plays from great players, the mauling of Messi is an abomination. Unfortunately, I'm in the great minority.

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