Commentary

A sad, sad end for Steve Zakuani

By Paul Gardner

There is one pretty obvious risk involved in playing soccer: That of a serious, career-ending injury. Pro players know that, they accept it. Fortunately, those serious injuries don't happen too often.

Players are not on the field to hurt and maim their opponents. That is a given. Even at the moments of the highest tension and emotional heat, very rarely do we see an outright and malicious assault by one player on another.

Roy Keane is the only top player I can think of who has admitted that he deliberately set out to hurt an opponent. He did a good job of it, seriously injuring the Norwegian Alf-Inge Haland. The injury certainly helped -- at least -- to end Haland's career.

Keane's defiant claim that what he did was just fine, that Haland had asked for it, may register high on the macho scoresheet, but to most people it was obnoxious. But at the time, the incident was treated almost as a routine play. A bad foul, certainly, but not that bad -- so Keane got a three-game suspension and a meaningless £5,000 fine. That's all.

The Keane example is extreme, but it reveals something important: That soccer simply has no idea how to deal with flagrant violence. Can it be right that Keane, deliberately setting out to seriously injure an opponent, gets only a three-game suspension? (Later, when he boasted about the foul in his book, he got a further 5 games).

For just about as long as I can remember, there have been rumblings of discontent in the game about this. When one player seriously injures another -- usually with a reckless, violent tackle -- the voices are heard: The player committing the foul should not be allowed to participate in the sport until the injured player is fit again. A serious foul can, after all, be legitimately viewed as an assault, something that might well bring a jail sentence under criminal law.

But sports prefer to administer their own verdicts and punishments, and legal systems worldwide are clearly happy to let them do so. It's a sensible arrangement, just as long as justice can be seen to be done by the sports authorities.

The notion of "equal time" has a satisfying feel of fairness, and of justice achieved. But it is simply not practical. Would it be right or, more to the point, legal to take away a guy's right to practice his profession ... on what evidence? Can one ever be quite certain that he deserves that? What if he shows genuine remorse? What if the injured player never recovers?

So the equal time solution has never found its way into any formal or even informal code of punishment. Soccer's method of punishment for flagrantly dangerous tackling remains decidedly unsatisfactory.

One of the main reasons is that the sport itself is always quick to excuse both the foul and the player who commits it. When Eduardo, the Brazilian turned Croatian playing for Arsenal, had his leg broken by an awful tackle from Birmingham City's Martin Taylor, a former Birmingham coach, Steve Bruce, thought the tackle was not that bad ("some would say it's not even a yellow card"). And there was an outcry of support for Taylor, portrayed by his teammates as a player who would never deliberately foul an opponent.

In 2011, MLS gave us an example of this twisted thinking, when Seattle's Steve Zakuani had his leg broken by a vicious tackle from Colorado's Brian Mullan. TV commentator Kyle Martino was quick to inform us that Mullan "is not a dirty player," while Colorado coach Gary Smith excused him with a phrase that crops up repeatedly when players injure opponents -- Mullan, said Smith "is not that sort of player."

Mullan was suspended for 10 games. Enough? Well, the foul marked the beginning of the end for Zakuani. After a 15-month rehab, Zakuani returned to MLS action. But it was not to be. Zakuani struggled to achieve fitness and form. Until, a couple of weeks ago, at age 26, when he should be in his prime as a player, Zakuani announced his retirement from the sport.

By that time Mullan, age 36, had already announced his own retirement. The contrast between the careers of the two players is grotesque. By any standards of fairness, Mullan got off far too lightly.

But he's not the first player to benefit from the sport's equivocal attitude to the violence that lurks within it. He won't be the last, for sure. Nevertheless, as I see it, he did "get away with" an atrocious act of violence towards another player. For which he never showed any indication of regret. At the time, he told us "It's a tackle I've done hundreds of times, and I'd probably do again."

You could, I suppose, excuse that as the feeble excuse of a player in a state of shock at what he had done. But there could be no excuses for what happened some years later. During a telecast of a Colorado game, Mullan was honored -- I don't recall why -- with a look back at his career. When he was interviewed, Mullan told us how much he'd enjoyed his pro career, and that if he had the chance to live it again, he "wouldn't change a thing."

Was he in denial, or had he forgotten what happened on April 22, 2011? The statement was callous to a degree that appalls. Yet Mullan was really only repeating the time-worn cliches of a sport that has never worked out how to deal with the sort of violence that goes beyond the worst level that the rule book can think of -- "force that endangers an opponent" -- and spills over into force that seriously injures an opponent.

In the incidents I've described, Keane, Martin and Mullan were all red-carded. The referees did their job. But the feeling persists that this was not enough, nor were the subsequent suspensions.

Zakuani's shattered leg tells us a sad, sad story of a sport that is too quick to exonerate its own offenders and their crimes. Of a soccer culture that is too willing to accept that "these things happen." And anyway, Brian Mullan is "not that sort of player." Case closed, it seems. So, farewell Steve, and good luck.

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19 comments about "A sad, sad end for Steve Zakuani".
  1. brett wyatt, November 11, 2014 at 7:10 p.m.

    No more tackling then, Paul ? Let's have water breaks every ten minutes. Also orange slices and capri suns at halftime. It's a contact sport...

  2. Kelly Ross, November 11, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.

    It begs the reality of too many wrong decisions and not one clear and definable right decision to address this when it arises; not one set of clear and unwavering set of circumstances to arrive at a meaningful and relevant punishment to fit the "crime" if a crime is deemed to have been committed. That ominous gray area rests in the hands of the league power structure. Unless and until that gray area becomes transparent, relevant and meaningful, it will be an area that will occupy the game, the league leadership and the fan base, long after we've moved on to that big pitch in the sky.

  3. John Hofmann, November 11, 2014 at 7:42 p.m.

    Memory can be a tricky business, but in this instance it seems to remain clear in my mind. I am a San Jose (and Houston) fan, so I was always found of Mullan's great effort and hustle when he played for them. He was then traded to Colorado; I was watching the game when this injury happened. As I recall, Mullan had the ball taken away from him in a skillful tackle. When he leaped up the camera was on his face, and at the time I was really struck by what seemed to be a really malevolent expression. Again, I recall that it was only moments later, and his first opportunity to respond to the 'indig- nity he had just suffered, when he made his tackle on Zakuani. Given my above thought stream at the time it happened,
    it ironic (or something else) that this first response ended with such an injury.

  4. Allan Lindh, November 11, 2014 at 8:07 p.m.

    Nice try Mr Gardner, but once again you miss the point, although Kelly Ross tried. After Marco van Baston's career was ended by vicious dirty tackles, there was a period when ALL tackles from behind were automatic red cards. It helped for a while, but was then reascended. If FIFA really wanted to clean up the game, and protect the most skilled players who make the game a joy to watch and profitable, they would make all tackles from behind, all vicious tackles through a players legs, all studs up tackles, automatic red cards. No warning, no talking to, just gone. The first such RED in a year would draw a 3 game suspension w/o pay, the second 6 games, the third 12 games etc. And assess the penalties on a sliding 12 mo window, so that there was no grace period at the beginning of a season. It would be a better game, a more beautiful game, a higher scoring game, a more profitable game. And the vicious tackling would be great reduced. So why don't they do it? Well look at the other decisions they make. "They" are a corrupt, venal group of morons. Best hope would be that the Spanish, German or English leagues would do it on their own. Or maybe MLS would like to show some guts, and take the lead.

  5. Thomas Brannan, November 11, 2014 at 8:07 p.m.

    If you compare the RESULT of what Keane did to Haland and what Suarez did to Chiellini, there is no comparison. Suarez's punishment was far to great. Who was the English player in the EPL coached by Harry Redknapp who forearmed the Portugese player and he lay twitching on the ground just outside the touchline. Redknapp said he is a good kid. Suarez wasn't as bad. I always love the English commentators comments (sarcasm) when they say, "oh nothing malicious".
    Professional sports organizations will always be like that because it's all about the MONEY.

  6. James Madison, November 11, 2014 at 8:18 p.m.

    In my "for pay" world, the law profession, discipline can range from private reprimand through public reprimand to suspension and ultimately loss of license to practice---in every case after a due process hearing. There is also the collateral sanction of increased cost of professional insurance. Maybe in egregious cases like those of Keane and Mullan soccer needs to consider the ultimate sanction.

  7. Mario Araujo, November 11, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.

    I am 57 years old and have played Soccer for over 52 years. I have seen the game evolved to a cleaner game now. What keane did was normal decades ago. I for one am happy that the game is getting cleaner because the beauty of the sport is the dribbling and passing not the intentional injuries that try to intimidate or hurt players. Soccer is a contact sport but it is not Rugby or American Football. That is why I was able to play it for 52 years. It is after all the beautiful game. Lets not make it the ugly game.

  8. jcr 3, November 11, 2014 at 9:13 p.m.

    I watched that game when Mullan injured Zakuani. You could see it in his face that he was angry as he approached him before he went into that flying tackle. The game has gotten cleaner, but there should be at times where there are criminal charges filed which doesn't happen nearly enough. One of the worst cases was in baseball where Juan Marichal lifted his bat to smash it on top on John Roseboro's head who was an all star catcher never to be the same again yet Marichal never was charged with a criminal offense. There is still a problem in all sports which needs to still improve further.

  9. R2 Dad, November 11, 2014 at 9:16 p.m.

    Any competent MLS or FIFA referee understands and should be able to discriminate between Careless/Reckless/Excessive Force tackles. The real issues are whether they have the professional judgement to give the card, and whether they have been advised by their leagues to do otherwise. I have no doubt our referees are professional and can officiate properly; I don't trust league administrators to allow them to do so if, in THEIR judgement, it "hurts the product on the field". Referees: trained to judge properly. Leagues Administrators: paid to maximize ad dollars. You tell me where the conflict of interest lies.

  10. Kent James, November 11, 2014 at 10:44 p.m.

    As Mario said, things used to be worse. In England especially, violence (on and off the field) was an expected part of "a man's game". Fouls committed by Mullan and Keane are, thankfully, quite rare. But yes, the leagues should come down harder on such heinous fouls. The referees generally do what they can in such situations (since such fouls are so blatant they get red cards), but I think any intentional foul that forces a player to leave a game should be multiple games (and a year's suspension or more should be possible). The risk to players is too high to allow people intent on harming other players to continue to play.

  11. Daniel Clifton, November 11, 2014 at 11:18 p.m.

    I thank PG for having the guts to say what he has said and showing real compassion for Steve Zakuani. I unfortunately don't see any comments about Steve Zakuani, who had a promising career cut short by this apparently angry tackle by Mullan.

  12. Zoe Willet, November 12, 2014 at 12:31 a.m.

    I agree 100% with Allan Lindh's comment. I too was watching when that horrible, evil tackle took place, and was aghast at Mullan's unsportsmanship. Ever since I have eagerly sought news about Steve. When he returned to play and faced Mullan, he said he had forgiven him. Well I hadn't, and still haven't. It was obvious, as time went on, that Steve was not in top form, even though he did his best and played well on occasion with the Sounders. I am so, so, incredibly sorry that he has found it necessary to retire, but understand. I think his character is exemplary. I hope sincerely that he will find another career that will fulfill him; I wish him the best.

  13. David Huff, November 12, 2014 at 3:04 a.m.

    Ditto Allen Lindh's and Zoe Willet's comments, very sad that scoundrels like Mullan even exist.

  14. Brian Something, November 12, 2014 at 10:08 a.m.

    Here’s the thing. Mullan WAS that kind of player. He always acted like a pr**k. He always made hard tackles that were whistled (remember, some tackles are legal and some are not). He was in people’s faces. It’s not the least bit surprising that he was involved with this kind of tackle and that he was completely unrepentant for ending a fellow professional’s career. He offered little to the game than “work rate” and “sending a message” (a euphemism for illegally roughing up opponents). The best defensive players, the Maldinis, the Sammers, the Nestas, rarely slide tackle and did so cleanly when they had to. I remember one year, Michael Parkhurst played the entire season as a center back in a 3-man backline for New England and was only whistled for like four of five fouls (not cards, fouls) the entire season. He’s not in the same league as the others, for sure, but that’s an example of defending that’s tough but fair. They rarely do so because they rely on their talent, hone their instincts and judgment where they rarely have to leave their feet because they’re always in a good position. England’s indulgence for “that kind of player” is precisely why they don’t produce any world class attacking players any more.

  15. Paul Amato, November 12, 2014 at 11:13 a.m.

    I have been a Sounders season ticket holder since their MLS inception. I happened to be seated about 10 rows back when the entire incident occurred. Mullan lost the ball and thought he was fouled. The ref did not call the foul. Mullan jumped up and "attacked" the first Sounder player with the ball, who happened to be Steve Zakuani. The look on Mullan's face was obvious even from where I was sitting. It was an expression of malintent. It was horrifying to witness, Zakuani rolling around in pain and anguish. I felt his punishment did not fit the crime. It was criminal and he should have been charged with assault. In hockey, they arrest players after games for assault, why not in soccer. We lost an exciting player, far too young.

  16. beautiful game, November 12, 2014 at 4:19 p.m.

    Mr. Wyatt's comment typifies the macho-syndrome of a few where commons sense is lacking. Yes, soccer is a contact sport, but when it comes to dangerous "assault" it is out of bounds.
    Mr. Lindh's critique is directed at the right quarter, FIFA. Even the NFL has instituted rules which can cause severe injuries. We see numerous from behind tackles in the MLS go unpunished, which indicates that the head of referees could care less about player safety. The boy will be boys mentality has no place on the pitch, it's an outdated excuse for manhood.

  17. Ken Jamieson, November 12, 2014 at 9:18 p.m.

    The Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore NHL incident, which resulted in a civil lawsuit launched by Steve Moore against Todd Bertuzzi for ending the former's professional career. Granted the case involved fighting, which is a cultural blemish of the NHL, but still is a case study for what options may be available for players when the league fails to administer the appropriate justice. Instead of defending the unacceptable actions of the instigator of the act, which are almost always couched with the phrases aimed at colouring the individual as almost a saint, rather we need to focus on the effects of rash and unacceptable behaviour. An isolated incident by an otherwise good guy, does not minimize the act. English football is littered with terms like "a hard challenge" and "getting stuck in" which serve to create an air of acceptability for an otherwise unacceptable act. A philosophy is needed where a player is responsible for his actions, regardless how isolated or the intentions. If a player commits an unacceptable act which threatens or actually ends a fellow professionals ability to earn a living, why should we be worried about the offending parties' right to earn a living, they forfeited that through their actions.

  18. Al Gebra, November 13, 2014 at 11:41 a.m.

    Brett "it's contact sport" Wyatt. Hey macho man with the tiny $#@%. You're following the wrong sport

  19. Margaret Manning, November 13, 2014 at 3:43 p.m.

    Steve is back "home" (his expression and our luck) in Seattle and is crowd-sourcing the publication of a book about his experiences, if anyone is interested in supporting it. (Mullan might consider it.)

    Check out Steve's twitter deed for information.

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