Banning the wrong guys: skewed thinking allows the thugs to flourish

By Paul Gardner

While the relentless search for divers and, now, the newly identified crime of embellishment, proceeds apace, one is left wondering just why so much energy and moral fervor is consumed over this issue ... and so little is devoted to a much more insidious and dangerous aspect of the sport: thuggery.

We have recently had a plea from Dr. Jiri Dvorak, FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer, that players who fake injuries should be banned. I guess he’s suggesting a period of suspension. His reasoning is this: that a referee should not be called upon to make a decision on whether an injury is real or faked. All players claiming to be injured should, in fact really be injured -- leaving the referee in no doubt that it is his responsibility to immediately stop play and allow medical attention.

Clearly, Dr. Dvorak had in mind the two recent cases of players collapsing, during a game, with serious heart problems. Instant and sophisticated treatment saved the life of Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba. Not so for Livorno’s, Piermario Morosini. He was rushed away from the stadium by ambulance, but died before he reached the hospital. Dr. Dvorak’s point is that in such cases, seconds are vital, and the referee should not have to delay his decision while he tries to decide whether a player is in real trouble or merely faking it. He asserts that injury-fakers, by planting those few seconds of doubt in a referee’s mind, are “potentially putting in danger his or her fellow player somewhere else in the world.”

There can be no argument to be made against extreme caution when lives are at stake. But Dr. Dvorak’s argument, attempting to blame injury-fakers for other players’ deaths, is over-reaching. The only conceivable way to avoid delays in vital medical treatment would be for referees to be instructed, or to decide for themselves, that they must halt the game and call for the medics in every case of injury, or apparent injury.

Given that the number of fatalities on the soccer fields is very small, this hardly seems a sensible approach. There is also a very human problem to overcome. Even if, by some miracle, all injury-faking were to cease tomorrow, there would still be cases of phantom injuries. Cases where a player genuinely believes he has been seriously injured -- even though that is not the case. There is no fakery or trickery or cheating involved. How is a player supposed to know whether his acute pain is fleeting or symptomatic of something badly wrong?

Players, in all sports, I think, have a tendency to minimize, or conceal, their injuries because they want to keep on playing. We are only now beginning to discover how damaging that attitude can be to players suffering even apparently minor concussions.

Blaming injury-fakers -- a very tiny percentage of players, I suspect -- for deaths that are equally, or more, likely to be brought on by other, more deeply rooted causes can only divert attention from where the main problem lies.

There is a further problem with Dr. Dvorak’s reasoning. The two cases that I have cited, two extreme and highly tragic cases, involved no violent play, no injury, no injury-faking. Both players collapsed with cardiac arrest, away from the ball. In both cases, there was minimal delay in getting the medics involved.

But, I repeat, despite the gaps in Dr Dvorak’s reasoning, no one -- certainly not I -- is going to argue with his premise of trying to abolish anything that puts players’ safety in danger.

But ... given the almost pious fervor with which faking, diving and embellishing are hunted down, why is it that other menaces -- much clearer, and much more widespread -- that threaten players’ safety are treated so lightly.

In particular, thuggery. Why is violent tackling and reckless play so often treated as an inevitable part of the game, as something to be laughed at, even admired? Why is thuggery not viewed with the same righteous (or is it sanctimonious?) horror that greets the injury-fakers and the divers?

We have before us right now, a prime example of thuggery in action. It is called Nigel de Jong. Manchester City’s Dutch midfielder. In the much touted ManCity vs. ManU game last week, a game that may have decided the English championship race, de Jong came on as a substitute and just eight minutes later got himself yellow-carded for a characteristically clumsy and dangerous foul on Danny Welbeck. Welbeck later left the stadium on crutches. He is considered doubtful for ManU’s next game.

No one should be surprised at that episode. De Jong has broken two legs in his career -- those of the American Stuart Holden and of Newcastle United’s Hatem Ben Arfa; he committed, and got away with, an atrocious karate-kick foul on Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final; his rough-house play led Dutch national team coach Bert van Marwijk to publicly criticize him and drop him from the team.

That is just a selection of de Jong’s biggest hits. To say that he is a menace to the safety of opponents is to state the obvious. But van Marwijk has since recalled him to the Dutch team; and, commenting on de Jong’s latest effort, the foul on Welbeck, TV analyst Steve MacManaman remarked “it’s just a foul, nothing wrong with it.”

De Jong, of course, doesn’t dive or pretend to be injured, something that would have the moralizers calling for him to be burned at the stake. All he does is to cripple opponents -- for that he earns adjectives like “combative” and “feisty,” which are openly intended as terms of praise.

De Jong, I believe, has never received a straight red card in his squalid career. After that spectacular World Cup foul, referee Howard Webb later admitted he should have red-carded de Jong. You could say that de Jong has been lucky. But is it luck that allows him to cut a devastating swath through opponents without incurring appropriate punishment? Or is it rather that de Jong profits from a widespread attitude that finds nothing wrong with reckless physical play - indeed, probably finds it exciting?

There is an enormous gap between the apoplectic moralizing that greets the so-called cheats -- and when did an embellisher ever send an opponent to hospital with a fractured leg? -- and the manly chuckling and unconcealed admiration that far too often greets the thugs.

It is that gap that explains why we hear Dr. Dvorak -- from whom we have a right to expect a level-headed medical opinion -- calling for the banning of injury-fakers, who might be the cause of distant deaths. Dr. Dvorak is rightly concerned with player safety -- yet we hear from Dr. Dvorak no call demanding the banning of thugs for their much closer, much more damaging and much more frequent excesses.

16 comments about "Banning the wrong guys: skewed thinking allows the thugs to flourish".
  1. Eric Duda, May 4, 2012 at 2:34 a.m.

    Another solution might be fixing why people dive. Most cheats, Busquets/Mascherano, use it as a ploy to waste time. Ok. Every time a player gets fouled in a way that makes him roll around the ground in obviously pain and immediate anguish has that right. Ok. Fine. Busquests don't forget to see if it is working. Every time this happens for a period of longer than let's say 10 seconds... or every time treatment is needed, that player has to remain off the field for no less than 5 minutes. If the team is winning and it using the tactic to waste time, be diligent in adding that time on. If Mascherano or Dani Alves for that matter, gets his leg (phantomly) broken into pieces, add 5 minutes to the end of the game. If the guy really is injured, take him off on the stretcher he absolutely needs, and sub him. Could you imagine offering Real Madrid another 5 minutes 3 seperate times in stoppage time because every time someone is touched they act like they've been shot!?!? I am picking on Barcelona at the moment (Messi gets his more than anyone and he is fantastic at playing on, a la Zidane) but every team has its culprits. Yes, something to be said with getting rid of the career ending tackle but take a lesson from the NHL, one time = x games. second time = x + x a third time is a whole season etc. You start taking peoples careers away as a dirty tackler, and not allowing them to make a living... they will stop. Marco Materazzi should have been banned for life long before anyone knew his name for getting head butted. Nigel de Jong should not be allowed to create a life for himself by limiting others in theirs.

  2. James m Evans, May 4, 2012 at 6:35 a.m.

    Once again Mr. Gardner makes a great point. It seems like it would be easy to use video replay the day after the game to stamp out foul play by suspending guys like de Jong. A long ban without pay will probably change his behavior. For the second offence make it longer, etc. For the divers, use the video as well. A 1 game ban with no pay and guys will think twice about doing it . The third issue that has taken away so much excitement from the game is , in my opinion , the blatant holding of players on corner kicks. Come on refs, man up! Call the penalty every single time and that problem disappears in 2 weeks( ok, a month for the really dumb guys).
    Keep up the great work Mr. Gardner!

  3. Vicki Zacharewicz, May 4, 2012 at 8:19 a.m.

    The very unfortunate sidebar to this is this 'take em out' philosophy is leaching into our youth teams. The next generation of soccer players are watching all of these games and are modeling now on the field. That coupled with the 'no return when subbed out rule' leave players who are really hurt on the field because they want to play on -- and possibly that is more harmful to them down the road.

  4. . Lev, May 4, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.

    ED: I completely agree, many 'sensitives' on Barcelona, but in all fairness, they are also found on other teams, albeit mainly in Southern Europe..
    De Jong? There are a number of 'Enforcers" in todays soccer, including 1/3 of the Liverpool team.
    The only way to brake (not end) this is through STATISTICS; noting every player who ends up (for any reason) stopping play. Over time A PATTERN WILL EMERGE. These players can then be dealt with by the appointed officials.
    if you doubt this method, read "Freakonomics"

  5. . Lev, May 4, 2012 at 8:52 a.m.

    Numbers don't lie

  6. Kent James, May 4, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.

    PG makes some good points, and Eric, James and .Lev make even better ones (since they off solutions). Penalizing faking injury in order to save lives is a non-issue. Referees have the ability to punish fakers in that anytime medical attention is called, the player must leave the field (and the referee can choose to keep them off the field). I would not favor a mandatory period off the field since there are injuries that seem serious at first, but resolve themselves quickly. I do wish PG would stop criticizing attempts to stop diving; diving is a conscious attempt to cheat, and should be punished. "Thuggery" is not quite as obvious. Any pre-meditated attempts to injure should be dealt with severely (with the ascending order of bans suggested by Eric), and video evidence should be used after games to punish such behavior (thuggery). But soccer is a physical game, and there are some physical challenges that rightfully remain part of the game. But I do think it's possible to distinguish between a clean physical challenge and a dirty one, and that's the sort of decision refs deal with all the time. Perhaps .Lev's idea of using statistical evidence to determine patterns could also be used. Not just yellow cards, but fouls committed, so that if a player commits X number of fouls during the season, he would have to sit out a game. Speaking of ref decisions, I agree with James' observation about the holding on corner kicks. If refs started calling it, it would go away (and they should, because it is truly out of hand). Defenders would be punished with a pk, while offensive players who hold in their defenders in the penalty area should get a yellow card, (as they do for using their hand to score), so that such a foul has meaning.

  7. Carl Walther, May 4, 2012 at 11:10 a.m.

    I don't understand why professional athletes are exempt from the law when they intentionally attack and injure another player. Why don't the local law enforcement officials charge these players with assault, the same way they would do if the attack took place on the street?

  8. Chris Lynch, May 4, 2012 at 11:26 a.m.

    Ban both types of player.

    Diving is pathetic and the players should lose their weeks pay which each game suspended.

    Thugs should be kicked out of the game.

  9. Jack Niner, May 4, 2012 at 11:52 a.m.

    Mr Gardner, you are spot on with all the issues. I would like to suggest that the approach taken by UEFA in CL in having an AR at each endline, in addition to the current touchline, I believe works very well in catching simulation and dangerous play, particularly in the penalty box where there effect can be greatly amplified in the outcome of a game. Case in point was the stupid, oafish foul by John Terry which was caught by the endline AR in the Chelsea - Barca game, which most certainly was not seen by either of the touchline AR's or Ref. With the additional two AR's, I'd like to see more straight red's for dangerous play - the laws of the game need to be enforced and demand straight reds. If Mr de Jong was known as much for the number of straight red's he's earned for hard fouls, perhaps teams would think the better of having him on the payroll.

    Given all this, I'm not sure there's much hope for English soccer, e.g. it seems the EPL wants to promote a hybrid of rugby and soccer - I'm not sure why, but that's what most of the EPL games look like, in addition to all the direct play. Years ago I and my kids would get up early to watch the EPL (in-spite of my deep disdain for English accents - I learned to suppress my dislike) No longer - La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, Mexico, and Latin soccer all seem like better representations of soccer. MLS I sense is trying to move away from this English/ EPL model of rugby-soccer - I believe they are correct to do so.

  10. Saverio Colantonio, May 4, 2012 at 2:53 p.m.

    One approach that a number of referees are now taking with those that have faked being fouled is that the likes of C. Ronaldo, with years of faking being fouled, ares seldom believed when they are truly fouled and nothing is called.

  11. Carlos Thys, May 5, 2012 at 6:03 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner writes, "Blaming injury-fakers -- a very tiny percentage of players, I suspect...." A completely clueless remark. Disengenous to the max. Even the vaunted EPL is now contending with fakers. Look, Mr. Gardner, every time a game is in its final 30, 20, or 10 minutes and one side is leading but not sure it can hold on (or has a desired draw and does not think it can maintain the tie), we see in about 30% of these matches players going to ground to steal time off the clock. This is one reason I refuse to go to more matches live and waste hard earned money. If I pay, I want 90 FULL MINUTES OF ACTION on the pitch. The artificial "injury time" added on rarely ever matches the time lost to fakery and the fakers are doing what they are doing to 1) steal time, and 2) take the wind out of the sails of their opponents. The fakers do this over and over (since World Cup 1982 -- in case anyone thinks me a neophyte at observing this first-hand) in my personal experiences. Dr. Jiri Dvorak is completely correct. The players who fake, feign, go to ground, layabout DO ROB a legitimate injured player of perhaps those vital seconds where immediate professional medical attention is required. It is perfectly normal for a match official to have a healthy bit of skepticism and hesitancy to call for professional aid. We've all seen the man finally stretchered off the field only to immediately bound off the stretcher and be clamoring like a jumping jack for permission to reenter the field. How often? Often enough that it is ubiquitous and brings the game into complete disrepute. Soccer of football detractors (there are many, many) are always right to decry the sport for its frankly very sissy players who lack any integrity whatsoever. Didier Drogba is perhaps, for me, the current greatest offender. But he only barely nips out dozens of others who do this in the world game we know on TV. Hear, hear! for Dr. Dvorak. He is right on target. I'd love to see an immediate red card given by the match official when Didier Drogba will attempt his injury deception again -- probably -- today at the Wembley FA Cup Final. Not at all disagreeing with the thuggery part of this article. I wish Mr. Gardner, that you'd made these two separate articles. And, yes, we can all agree that Nigel de Jong is a horrid player. Hard to understand why he's not already been given a multi-year UEFA and FIFA ban from all competitions. His kung fu kick in the World Cup final against Spain was ludicrous. NOTE: Drug test de Jong. Every week. You'd find substances in him like Captagon. For 100% surety.

  12. Carlos Thys, May 5, 2012 at 6:26 a.m.

    Those who are "in the know" know of a fine and (to me) legendary commentator named Toby Charles. A Welshman who was the voice behind the show "Soccer Made in Germany." I remember well hearing Toby Charles' understatement but obvious annoyance when seeing another player go to ground and writhe about on the field during World Cup 1982 only to be a-okay to play several minutes later AND AFTER team docs and physios had come onto the pitch to administer aid. What kind of aid? Well, back then in 1982, Toby Charles coined a phrase for me that has stuck ever since...the aid was the "magic sponge." (That's truly all it was. A little bucket of water and a sponge applied to wherever the alleged boo-boo was) Ah, well...all part of "harmless" gamesmanship, eh? And...not so common an occurrence....

  13. Kent James, May 5, 2012 at 2:03 p.m.

    Carlos, I agree with your concern about people faking injuries to waste time (and Drogba's time on the ground in the last CL game v Barcelona was truly embarrassing), but referees do have it within their authority to deal with that now. They should just tell the player that they will be adding additional time (not just the time wasted) to the game to punish them for their gamesmanship. And when the injured player is carted off and magically hops up, the referee should simply delay their re-entry for a minute or two. Along the gamesmanship problems that are similar, is the substitution to waste time. In the Real Madrid v Barcelona game, Benzema was subbed during injury time (Really? Why even allow a sub when there is a minute left?). So it was an obvious time wasting ploy. Worse, Benzema took 45 seconds to walk off the field (I've seen refs give cards for this as time-wasting, which it clearly was). And then the ref added no time for the time wasting substitution, so it worked. Horrendous. As for Toby Charles, I loved Soccer Made in Germany. The most memorable phrase I remember was "Oh, he should have done more with that one!" (usually when someone missed a scoring chance). As I was just learning to play at the time, I always thought that comment was a bit hard on the players (since I would have trouble making such shots as a young player), but now I realize that he was probably right. He was a great commentator, and at the time, it was the only soccer on TV (but it meant a lot to me).

  14. Carlos Thys, May 5, 2012 at 11:09 p.m.

    Mr. James, yes, you are right. Time wasting is beyond art form and is learned at clearly early ages as 12 year olds now perform what they see their EPL, Serie A, La Liga, World Cup etc. "heroes" doing. Maybe Benzema would trot with some pace to the sideline if he knew he might be carded and miss the CL final in Munich? I agree with you -- no substitutions permitted in injury time. Of all the leagues to do this, the Italian Serie A used to place a stopwatch on its televised games. The stopwatch time was right underneath the real match 90 minute clock on the TV screen. The stopwatch clock would only move forward if the ball was in play. Thus, this little clock/stopwatch would be "off" when the ball was out of play, off the end lines or the sidelines, while waiting for the throw in player to finally throw it or waiting for the GK to finally make the goal kick. Routinely one would only get about 62 or 64 minutes of real match play in the 90 minute game. It was astounding, and should remind every viewer / consumer -- "let the buyer beware." The fans of the MLS should force the TV broadcasters to do the same for us. Maybe the American-led MLS league could pioneer here as well to make the MLS one of the world's most attractive leagues both for those in the stadiums and those giving up their free time to watch on TV or the net.

  15. Carlos Thys, May 5, 2012 at 11:24 p.m.

    Sorry, I got that all wrong on Benzema. Not that he should have been carded, no, no. Benzema should have been and he, like all players doing same, should have had to face some sort of real, tangible penalty for obvious time wasting (at the behest of his Real Madrid coaching staff, for sure). However, striker Karim B. is obviously not in this year's CL final in Munich. My ooops. Also -- I forgot to mention -- Mr. James, I am glad that you also got to enjoy the voice, the coverage, the insights, the humor, and the love of the game that Toby Charles offered us. If you need to hear his voice again, even for just the 145 seconds or so, someone has posted a nice, short Soccer Made in Germany league match highlight video, a match between FC Cologne and Fortuna Duesseldorf with Toby commenting -- on YouTube. Just search Toby Charles German Bundesliga. That should bring back some pleasant memories. It did indeed for me. Toby Charles is apparently still living, somewhere off the Ring Road in Cologne, Germany.

  16. Kent James, May 15, 2012 at 10:03 a.m.

    Thanks for the Youtube suggestion Carlos, it was great to hear him once again....

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