Tough but fair? A likely story

There is plenty of evidence pointing to the Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro being a decidedly physical player. From what I’ve seen of him (not a great deal, admittedly) I wouldn’t hesitate to define him as one of those players who seem to enjoy playing, consistently, on the edge of a yellow card.

And like most such players he has a good disciplinary record. From what I’ve seen of him in action, I’d say he’s a lucky man. His tackles are often pretty scary — tackles for which I, in my role as arm-chair referee, usually punish him with a yellow card. On the whole, the real referees seem to find him much less menacing than I do, hence that comparatively good record.

A fact that is worth pondering. Casemiro, after nine years at the very pinnacle of the club game with Real Madrid, is now with Manchester United.

That fact — that Casemiro is now playing in England — is what set me off on this particular ponder. More specifically, it was a remark from his coach — Erik ten Hag ( who, like most of the EPL coaches, is not English — he’s Dutch).

Coach ten Hag was displeased because Casemiro was given a red card last Sunday during ManU’s game against Southampton. His second red in five weeks. For sure, he’d been red-carded before.

He’d collected two reds while with Real Madrid. But that was two reds during a five-year spell. Now he’d collected two reds in just five weeks.

Whatever, red card it was. Casemiro left the field in tears — the red card was his first-ever straight-red ejection. Coach ten Hag had this to say: “Casemiro has played 500 games in Europe and never had a straight red card, and now he has two. He plays tough but fair. Of course, it looks bad when you freeze the frame but everyone who knows something about football know what is bad and what is fair. I tell you Casemiro is a very fair player.”

It was that phrase “tough but fair” that raised my eyebrows. I have history with that —well, not quite, but near enough. In my youth in England we quite frequently repeated the phrase “hard but fair.”

In fact, had national teams sported a motto, that would have fitted nicely on England’s white shirts: “Hard but Fair.” I don’t recall using it myself, but I can be pretty certain that I did — heck, we all did. It described the English game at the time (this was some 75 years ago, mark you): a macho, manly affair with plenty of body contact, especially crunching tackles.

And what a lovely phrase: vigorously straightforward, no apologies, and a defiant “Fair” to quash any suggestions that being “hard” meant playing dirty.

Some years later — many, far too many years later — I at last knew enough to admit that the phrase — like most advertising slogans — was spurious. Playing hard, I’d finally discerned, invariably meant playing dirty. It still does.

Don’t ever be fooled. Anyone in soccer who uses the “hard but fair” tag is lying — simply trying to cover the ugly truth with a smooth slogan.

What does playing hard mean anyway? Does anyone have a definition? Indeed, someone does. It means when a player “exceeds the necessary use of force and/or endangers the safety of an opponent.”

Not a bad definition, that. Recognize it?  It comes from soccer’s very own rulebook. It is forbidden. You’re supposed to be red-carded if you play like that.

Unfortunately, soccer’s rule-makers (IFAB makes the rules) and rule-enforcers (the referees) far too frequently lack the courage to rein in “hard” play.

So it (along with the inevitable catalogue of injuries it provokes) lives quite openly in the sport. The players who play that way, and those who support them, have learned that they can comfortably hide behind the “hard but fair” lie.

I wonder if that will ever change. We live in a world where we are incessantly bombarded with the spectacularly silly lies and half-truths and deceits of advertising. Some of this, I’m told, is very clever. Maybe so, but I find virtually all of it just plain moronic.

That hardly matters. What does matter is that advertising has a habit of abusing the English language. That matters — to me, anyway, and I hope to you too. A direct result of this abuse is that we now so easily take to memory, and use in both thought and speech, the most brainless slogans and catch-phrases — which implies that we now believe they carry real worth.

I doubt if any of them do. Proof of that is to be found among the slogans themselves. Pitifully few of them last more than a few months at most before they are replaced by new — and probably even sillier — wordage.

Some of course persist. In soccer, we have “hard but fair.” But don’t be taken in. Hard but fair play is an outright lie. It means dirty play, period.

I’m not accusing anyone of deliberately setting out to maim opponents. But I would like them, for a moment, to stick their heads above the hard-but-fair parapet and explain how they can measure the level of “excessive force” in their play, so that it intimidates but does not injure.

8 comments about "Tough but fair? A likely story".
  1. Gonzalo Munevar, March 15, 2023 at 1:08 p.m.

    Congratulations to Paul Gardner for this truly excellent article. Vicious tackling has become a major threat to the beauty of the sport.

  2. Randy Vogt, March 15, 2023 at 1:19 p.m.

    Having worked in marketing all my adult life and being a former Manhattan ad man, I'm paid to show the good aspects of a product, cause, person, etc., but not to lie. Could get in trouble for lying in many cases as some of the products being promoted, such as pharmaceutical drugs and financial products, are highly regulated along with their advertising.

  3. Kent James, March 15, 2023 at 1:45 p.m.

    While I agree that the "hard" aspect of that phrase is often stretched to the point of abuse, I do think the concept has some validity.  Soccer is a contact sport, and there can be a lot of contact without a foul.  Going in hard (in the positive sense) means being agressive, fearless, and strong.  So that means trying to win that 50/50 ball instead of conceding it to the other team.  Going up for the header even if others are going up as well.  Not being afraid to block a dribbler who is coming at full speed by getting your body behind the ball to be able to withstand the momentum the dribbler will put behind the ball. This certainly has roots in the "it's a man's game" British attitude that PG rightfully points out has some serious flaws.  But there are good aspects.

    But when the term is abused, it means making up in physicality what you lack in skill, intimidating opponents by using force to attemp to hurt them, and "sending a message" (by hacking down a good dribbler to let them know the consequences of trying to use their skill).  And that sort of behavior is what cards are for, and refs should use them enough to let players know "not today."

    Players should go in hard...unless they know they're not going to get to the ball first. Then going in hard is not only dangerous, but also stupid, because it should be punished.  If a team wins every 50/50 ball by going in harder than the other team, that helps them win.  On the other team, if a team goes in hard poorly (late) against a good team, that team will use that hardness against them, inviting them to overcommit.  Nothing is more satisfying that watching a game in which a small, skillful team runs around a bigger, more athletic (but less skillful) team that is overly aggressive.  That's one of the great things about soccer; there are many paths to victory.

  4. Ben Myers replied, March 15, 2023 at 6:47 p.m.

    Well, getting the ball when going in hard can often cause a crippling injury.  The LOTG says noting about getting the ball absolving the tackler of an infraction. Safety first, if officiated well.

  5. Mike Lynch, March 15, 2023 at 3:35 p.m.

    Thank you Paul for highlighting and advocating for sporting play. "Hard but fair" seems to rationalize over aggressive (illegal) contact whereas "Both hard and fair" connotes aggressive but not illegal contact, which I believe keeps with the spirit and laws of the game. 

  6. R2 Dad, March 15, 2023 at 5:17 p.m.

    "Casemiro is a very fair player". I would contend that he WAS a fair player but is now slowing down and is becoming a liability--that's why Madrid offloaded him.

  7. John Soares, March 16, 2023 at 4:25 a.m.

    While I always enjoy your articles.
    There is usually room for some disagreement "fair"...              .. dam couldn't find any this time.
    There is indeed far too much "hard" in soccer.

     Now, about those fake injuries!? 

  8. stewart hayes, September 7, 2023 at 11:03 p.m.

    Casemiro's tackle was a good call and not a difficult one to make.  Whining about it makes it worse and is not honorable.  Erik ten Hag should be ashamed of himself.  The video was ugly.  This how losers play.

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