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.