Let us tackle the ‘risk-free football’ brigade
TV images of Eduardo da Silva’s sickening leg injury inspired new knee-jerk calls to outlaw dangerous tackles. Forget about it.
There are certain TV pictures so stomach-turning that you simply have to cover your eyes or switch channels. We all have our personal ‘yuk’ threshold. For some it’s a violent shoot-em-up or scary film. For others it’s what broadcasters call ‘scenes of a sexually explicit nature’. For me it’s horrifying football injuries. David Busst, Djibril Cisse, Henrik Larsson, Alan Smith, and now Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva. All unwatchable. On Saturday night, I left the room when replays of Martin Taylor’s tackle on Eduardo were shown on Match of the Day.
But while we can all agree that the sight of Eduardo’s injury was truly sickening – a fractured left fibula and an open dislocation of his left ankle – I can’t go along with the shrill demands that ‘something must be done’ to stop career-threatening tackles. Certainly, Martin Taylor’s tackle was over the top, but then so too was Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s immediate reaction. ‘The guy should never play again’, said Wenger in an emotional post-match interview. ‘This is the result of a very bad tackle that is not forgivable. People will always use the excuse that the guy is not a dirty player and that he did not mean it. It is like a guy who kills one time in his life. It is enough. You have a dead person.’
Although shocked at the injury to Eduardo, few people have gone along with Wenger’s extreme demands for retribution. ‘He is an intelligent man and it is scandalous to be saying things like that. It was ridiculous for a manager of his stature to be saying a player should never play again’, said the Birmingham striker James McFadden. Most callers to BBC Radio Five Live’s 606 phone-in programme that evening also felt that Wenger had gone too far. I think Wenger’s anger was understandable. Football is a passionate game and he’d just lost a key player to a terrible injury. He isn’t the first manager to lose all sense of proportion in a post-match interview, and he certainly won’t be the last. Wenger himself subsequently admitted that he had overreacted. ‘It was a highly emotional afternoon and we were all shocked by the injury’, he said. ‘On reflection, my comments about Martin Taylor were excessive. I said what I did immediately after the game in the heat of the moment.’
The trouble with Wenger’s later, more measured statement is that it isn’t at all clear what, if anything, he’s taking back. His demand that Taylor should not be allowed to play again? If he thinks that a life ban is ‘excessive’, what sort of ban would he want to see. The standard three-match ban for violent conduct or something more punitive? Six months? Twelve months? Three years? What Wenger hasn’t retracted is his tired complaint that opposing teams like to rough Arsenal up. ‘This goes with the idea that to stop Arsenal you have to kick Arsenal’, said Wenger. ‘We knew this would happen one day.’
Despite Wenger’s semi-retraction, other, more strident, voices have taken up the call for tougher action. There has been a running debate this season about the apparent increase in reckless tackles. ‘The truth is, Eduardo’s sickening fate was the big accident waiting to happen’, wrote James Lawton in the Independent. ‘Now that it has, maybe, just maybe, a growing problem will be addressed.’ (1) Martin Samuel of The Times saw Eduardo’s injury as a logical consequence of ‘English interpretation of the rules’ – namely referees turning a blind eye to early physical challenges as a result of ‘our determination to let the game flow’ (2). A ‘reducer’ is how Big Ron Atkinson used to describe the tactic of laying down the gauntlet to an opponent early in the game by clattering into him. ‘Taylor may have been attempting this strategy when he inadvertently broke Eduardo’s leg at St Andrew’s’, suggested Samuel. ‘He was “letting him know he was there”; “seeing if he was up for it”. Football is not short of euphemisms for what could be more simply termed a foul.’
Samuel implores us to ‘make sure it does not happen again’. Lawton thinks there should be ‘new legislation’ to put a stop to over-the-top tackles. Calling for tougher action to stop bad tackles is football’s equivalent of the Dangerous Dogs Act – a kneejerk reaction that produces bad law. Dangerous tackles are already red-card offences. But that doesn’t stop them happening. How do we know that more punitive legislation would serve as a better deterrent? Footballers often see red or make bad decisions in the heat of battle with little or no regard to the consequences.
Even if there were tougher penalties for malicious challenges, how would we define where the boundary lies? Is it a question of intent? If so, how do we know what’s in a footballer’s head? It is, of course, impossible unless a player does what Roy Keane did and fesses up in an autobiography. Or is it a question of the severity of the injury? The problem here is that tackles – both legitimate and reckless – can produce very different outcomes. If you can bear to watch, have a look on YouTube at all the worst football injuries in recent years – Busst, Larsson, Cisse, Smith – and you’ll see that none was caused by malicious tackles. Even Martin Taylor’s challenge on Eduardo last week did not, on first viewing, appear particularly dangerous. Indeed, had Eduardo’s injury not been so horrific, you’d wonder whether the referee would have issued a red card at all. By contrast, there have been plenty of studs-up, two-footed lunges this season that have looked far more dangerous but have not resulted in any serious injury.
Ironically, one person who hasn’t jumped aboard the Campaign Against Bad Tackles is Eduardo himself. ‘These things can happen in football’, the Arsenal striker was quoted as saying. ‘I see this as a risk of professional football.’ It’s a pity others can’t be as stoical. Why can’t we just accept that this was a freak injury? It wasn’t caused by English physicality or refereeing leniency, and nor was it part of a wider spate of reckless tackles. It was just an accident. Rank bad luck. So let’s just wish Eduardo a speedy recovery and call a halt to this futile quest for risk-free football.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Reckless tackles leave ugly stain that apologists can no longer wipe away, Independent, 26 February 2008
(2) Mike Dean’s action at odds with the tolerance of brutality, The Times (London), 27 February 2008