Ronaldo's stitches: Is soccer paying attention?

By Paul Gardner

Soccer in "mortal danger"? That's what a recent headline said, quoting the words of UEFA president Michel Platini. Seems a bit strong, but overkill is justified when a crisis threatens and no one is paying attention. Platini evidently feels strongly enough about this to dramatize his warning.

As I do believe that soccer has a serious, if not quite life-threatening, problem, I agree with Platini. Or so I thought. But, getting past the headline, I find that Platini is talking about game-fixing. Not a topic that I have any wish to belittle, but not the one that I had in mind.

Game-fixing -- allied with the so-called “illegal” betting -- is, after all, hardly a uniquely soccer problem. It applies to every sport -- even cricket, where “spot-fixing” (which may or may not alter the outcome of a game) is becoming bothersome -- and strikes at the roots of every competitive sport.

The problem is so widespread that it is not one that soccer can solve internally -- countering game-fixing entails police-force activity on an international scale. It means hunting down well-organized and well-financed criminal gangs -- not an activity that soccer is in any way equipped to handle.

That is not what I was thinking of -- something much more soccer-specific was on my mind. Another headline -- this one appeared yesterday -- raises my point: “I never intended to hurt Cristiano Ronaldo.”

The words are those of Croatian midfielder, Jerko Leko. Playing for Dinamo Zagreb against Real Madrid in a Champions League game, Leko put on a thoroughly thuggish performance, climaxed with an awful “tackle” on Ronaldo that left the Real star needing four stitches in his ankle.

Bad enough -- but made worse by pathetic refereeing from Norway’s Svein Oddvar Moen, who failed to red-card Leko; in fact, didn’t even caution him.

That sequence of events splendidly captures what I see as a mortal threat to soccer. But that episode was merely a moment or two in a whole game that underlined just how badly the sport has gone astray. A thoroughly unpleasant game in which Dynamo made its intentions clear from the start: it would turn this into a physical encounter, it would make things as rough as possible -- which means as rough as the referee would allow. And Moen allowed almost everything.

So we get one of the world’s top players being kicked from pillar to post while Moen does nothing about it. And we get Leko telling us that the tackle was “unfortunate” and that he didn’t mean to hurt Ronaldo. The eternal excuse of the thugs. Let’s believe him. I, for one, do find it very difficult to believe that players set out to deliberately injure others.

But intention has nothing to do with this. The more revealing part of Leko’s statement was his admission that Dinamo had decided that playing the game “a little harder than usual” was the only way to stop Real Madrid: “If we had given them space, their talent and individual advantage would have exposed us.”

This is ingenuous, an excuse for making physical intimidation the tactic of the day. Maybe Dinamo always plays that way -- I haven’t seen enough of them to know -- but probably not, as we have Leko’s words that this was “a little harder than usual.”

So, Cristiano, forget about your “individual talent,” Dinamo will counter that by chopping you down whenever they can, and if you get injured in the process, which seems quite likely, well it’s all part of the game, so please stop whining about it.

That, then, was Dinamo’s approach. Hardly an original one. It is, in fact, precisely the approach that Real Madrid itself adopted -- under the guidance of Jose Mourinho -- in recent games against Barcelona. So there is a sense that Dinamo’s rough play was nothing more than chickens coming home to roost, and that Real are in no position to complain.

But that rather cynical view alters nothing. The tactic of deliberately roughing up opponents, whoever employs it, must be treated as an unacceptable way of playing the game. It should be identified early by the referee (and let’s face it, that is not the most difficult task in the world) and harshly dealt with. Yet here we had a referee who evidently shared that approach!

Referee Moen had cautioned Leko at the end of the first half, but then failed to send him off -- either with a straight red or a second yellow -- for his “unfortunate” tackle on Ronaldo. But Moen did manage to award a second yellow to Real’s Marcelo ... for diving! How’s that for tough officiating?

There you have it -- the insidious attitudes that constitute a “mortal danger” to the sport. But this is not an external threat like the game-fixing targeted by Platini, this is a danger within the sport itself.

As such it is something that soccer can deal with. It is entirely within soccer’s powers to banish violent physical play from the game. It is in the sport’s own interest to work toward that aim. Yet it does so in a way that can only be described as half-hearted.

It comes down to this: do we want a sport that features the skills of a Ronaldo? Or one that features the thuggery of Leko? The two versions are not compatible. If Leko and his like are allowed to flourish -- in the way that he was allowed to do in this game -- then this is no game for the skilled players.

The only good thing about the Dynamo vs. Real game was that Real won it. Just as the only good thing about last year’s World Cup final was that Spain managed to beat the appalling Dutch. But are those the sort of games we want? Games in which soccer talent is crushed by physical force?

The question needs to be answered, because there is enough evidence to suggest that there are plenty of people around, within the sport, who do want that sort of game. They must not be allowed to prevail. They should be told loud and clear, from the top, from FIFA -- and, indeed, from Platini -- that their approach is unacceptable.

Over 100 years ago, when soccer was still in its birth pains, the same split surfaced, between those who wanted a physical game (one in which players were permitted to “hack” -- i.e. to kick opponents) and those who preferred skill. The hackers were voted down, out of the sport -- and they departed to develop their own game, to be called rugby.

But the hackers have never really gone away. They remain a subversive presence in a sport that is far too tolerant of their influence. It is precisely that influence that, quite deliberately, turns games that should be showcases of what is best in the sport into degrading pitched battles.

This time, Ronaldo was the target for the hackers. He escaped, just, with a severely gashed ankle. Next time? It’s worth considering who might be the next victim, because the obvious one, the player who likes to dribble the ball, the player who makes life so difficult for defenders, in Lionel Messi.

Is there a soccer fan anywhere in the world who has not at some moment feared for Messi’s safety? Who has not had a vision of a badly injured Messi leaving the field on a stretcher?

Is that what we want? Messi, or Ronaldo, or any other skilled player, a victim of violent play. And a victim of his own sport, which cannot summon up the guts to take the issue seriously.



15 comments about "Ronaldo's stitches: Is soccer paying attention?".
  1. R2 Dad, September 16, 2011 at 10:39 p.m.

    I have not been able to find a clip of the tackle, so it's hard to comment on whether it was an excessive force event. However, you will have a hard time convincing certain team supporters in the BPL that "getting stuck in" is not an honorable tactic.

  2. Michael Wolf, September 16, 2011 at 10:54 p.m.

    Sigh...Paul you really need to switch things up. I realize your passion for this type of topic, but with the frequency of your pieces along these lines, you just sound like a harping, repetitive whiner. By the way, I agree - to an extent. However, soccer is not a board game; it is a physical sport. The trick is achieving a balance to the physicality which resonates across different cultures and nationalities...not an easy task.

  3. Jordan Thompson , September 16, 2011 at 11:28 p.m.

    Mr. Sigh.., Paul is right, in this instance. Crippling soccer belongs on the rugby field, or along with pads on the North American 'football' field. Don't like skill? Go to blitzkrieg football, don't taint skilled play. HOWEVER, Christ-like, self absorbed, self consumed, selfish, arrogant - coupled with expletives - folk like Mr. Christ Ronaldo seem to bring out the worst in most of us, and wish he played hockey.

  4. Kent James, September 17, 2011 at 12:10 a.m.

    While I agree with the tenor of the column, I disagree with the connection Paul sees between a referee punishing diving and not punishing thuggery. If Marcelo took a dive, he should have been carded and that would be irrelevant. Both are against the rules, and both should be punished for the good of the game. One thing I think that would make referees more willing to send off people for thuggery would be to allow an ejected player to be substituted (if the team still had subs), so the referee would not dramatically change the game (which most referees hesitate to do, especially early in a match). As for Messi, while I certainly hope he is never injured, I worry less about that; for him to get injured, defenders would have to catch him, and he's simply too quick for that...

  5. Taihe'Joel Torjilar , September 17, 2011 at 12:23 a.m.

    I can't ruled out the fact that excessive physical tackles is / or should be acceptable in the ways of the beautiful game of football. In the same instance the game is not checker, where one player doesn't touch the other. "THIS. BEAUTIFUL GAME OF OURS IS A PHYSICAL SPORT". Leko, is a fine player, who played his role well-on and off the pitch. On, he defensed. Off, he did apologized to Ronaldo. I really don't think we should blame players for been physical, especially defenders. But the man in the middle (referee Meon) should shoulder the blame for not regulating it well, with his yellow and red cards options. The attack on Ronaldo was unfortunate. We should know that this game along with its players have both beautiful and ugly days. I wish you a speedy recovery, see you back soon boy.

  6. Antonio Quaresma, September 17, 2011 at 4:20 a.m.

    I believe Ronaldo's constant diving, through the years, in attempting to get a foul called and deceiving the referee is backfiring on him; referee's are now withholding calls that should go in his favor. It's frustrating to watch one of the world's best player constantly diving and whining!

    Another problem are the instructions coming from FIFA and national federations to the referees to keep the cards down. The argument being that the fans come out to see the players on the field and not in the stands. When a referee gives out 6 or 8 cards in a game, the refs game control is analyzed by the suits, as a lack of game control or game management. The ref is ridiculed by the suits, coaches, media and players. If the play merits a card, then it should be applied; cards should be encouraged not ridiculed.

    I believe one way to clean up the game is if video is used, after the game, to review plays in question. Players then could be penalized for diving, or attempting to deceive the referee. Even for fouls off the ball, if the refs missed it during the game.

    If the ref gives out a caution, but on video review it merited an ejection; then it should be changed. Or if a player claims he got elbowed in the face, but on video analysis it shows he was hit in the shoulder, he should be penalized with a suspension.

    If the players, and team officials, know they will be penalized by video review all this nonsense will stop. But FIFA and UEFA have to change their mentality about how they view card issuing by the man with the whistle. Let the cards be issued like it was Christmas time every game if merited. I believe this would clean up the game very quickly. Just a thought...

  7. Michael Polak, September 17, 2011 at 10:49 a.m.

    Absent all the changes Antonio suggests, we are left with things as they are. In a game where the difference between a good or bad tackle can be a a few centimeters and a fraction of a second, the ref can only be sure of what happened to a point; judgement comes into play, and let's face it, Ronaldo has a well-deserved reputation as an actor. As for the game, I saw an underdog team play one of the world's best to the very end! There were a few incidents of rough play from both sides, but that is what happens in important games with highly motivated teams.

  8. Kent James, September 17, 2011 at 10:56 p.m.

    Well put Antonio. I've actually had visions of players (playing under the system of video review you suggest) having second thoughts after instinctively diving and actually telling referees that they should not call the foul against their opponent, for fear that under review it would be seen as a dive and they'd be punished. A man can dream can't he....

  9. Rick Fleming, September 18, 2011 at 4:40 p.m.

    Would anyone entertain the thought that both are intertwined? That mabye the ref was on the take? This is something most don't want to discuss, but what better way to sway a match than to look the other way when called for. Most all of us play and most all of us know how to avoid rough play it's a self preservation instinct. I don't know could just be my opinion. Something to consider.

  10. Carl Walther, September 18, 2011 at 4:50 p.m.

    I find it amazing and sad, that so many responders to Paul's article make excuses and try to justify thug behavior in tackles. From a psychological point of view, a lot of it comes from misplaced 'manhood problems.' i.e. "Soccer is a physical man's sport, and should be violent."

  11. Kraig Richard, September 18, 2011 at 5:24 p.m.

    Should have been four stiches on his cheek. No one that good looking deserves to be so utterly phenominal. Jealousy aside, American grid-iron football has incredibally high standards, and almost always make great calls. I think they have five officials.

  12. Jack vrankovic, September 18, 2011 at 9:50 p.m.

    Did you watch the game Paul? I watched the game and I watched the challenge in question at least 10 times. That was a 50-50 ball that was there to be won.

    I am not a fan of dirty play, but tough play is acceptable. Leko did have one bad challenge (not on Ronaldo) and he was carded for it.

    Should Leko and Dinamo sit back and let #7 dazzle them like the LA Galaxy did or should they play football.

    Marcelo is a cry baby cheat who should have passed the ball more accurately to Ronaldo if he didn't want the opposition to get it. Ronaldo is probably the best player in the world but he cries far too much about far too much.

    The EPL which I am not a huge fan of, has multiple challenges weekly that are far worse than that.

    American soccer is doomed if this is how competitive games are viewed.

  13. Jack vrankovic, September 18, 2011 at 11:08 p.m.

    @Michael Polak: Well said.

  14. Jack vrankovic, September 18, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.

    @Kraig Richard: American football has commercially driven 45 second pauses in between every play. That is why instant replay works. They have all the time in the world to discuss penalties etc. Inconsistent / Bad Referees should be shown the door. Howard Webb comes to mind. He will card instantly for dissent but will not card for negligent or dangerous tackles. From the last World Cup to yesterday's Bolton/Norwich game, he is awful. IMHO the ref at the DInamo-RM game was top shelf.

  15. Jack vrankovic, September 18, 2011 at 11:23 p.m.

    @ Paul G: A lot of your articles tend to make me shake my head but this column is laughable. Watch the game and tell me that Leko's man on man marking of Ronaldo constitutes "Thuggery". Either you didn't watch the game and felt compelled to comment because you saw Ronaldo's interview or you lack football knowledge. You should look inward when you describe something as 'awful".

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