Oct 8, 2010

Its a man's game... or is it?

By Simon Glanville

Football has traditionally always been a man’s game – known for its tough tackling and ultra-competitive nature - but maybe that’s about to change.

Only this week, Bert van Marwijk, Head Coach of the Netherlands, took the unusual step of dropping Manchester City hard man Nigel De Jong from his country’s upcoming European Championship qualifiers. The reason why was not down to a loss of form or niggling injury, but, for being too aggressive in the tackle.

De Jong can have no room for complaint. He broke Newcastle United midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg at the weekend with a terrible challenge that left the on loan Frenchman in agony, and he also has plenty of previous. Stuart Holden, the Bolton and USA international midfielder, also came out with a broken leg after a challenge with De Jong, this time in a friendly match prior to the World Cup Finals. And in the final of that very tournament, De Jong came into heavy criticism after a ‘kung-fu kick’ on Xabi Alonso, one the Spanish midfielder described as “…one of the worst tackles I have ever suffered.”

After removing De Jong from his country’s upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers against Sweden and Moldova, coach van Marwijk didn’t hold back with his thoughts on the City midfielder’s challenge on Ben Arfa. “I just informed the squad and told him I saw no other possibility," said the Holland manager. “I've seen the pictures back. It was a wild and unnecessary offence. He went in much too hard. It is unfortunate, especially since he does not need to do it… I have a problem with the way Nigel needlessly looks to push the limit. I am going to speak to him.”

In De Jong’s defence, it may be that he is being made the scapegoat here. The Dutch manager may be trying to appease the fans, after a World Cup Final where the whole Netherlands team tried to bully eventual champions Spain. Holland legend Johan Cruyff even branded his nation as playing “anti-football”. But with the likes of tough-tackling Mark van Bommel still in the Dutch party, it seems that De Jong is being singled out.

Despite Holland taking the hardline approach with the midfielder, he will not suffer any further action from the FA for his tackle on Ben Arfa. The FA is unable to impose any sanction on the Dutchman as referee Martin Atkinson admitted he saw the incident at the time and decided not to punish him. "If the referee saw it – as happened in this case – and dealt with it at the time then there is no scope for us to take it any further, in keeping with Fifa regulations," confirmed an FA spokesman.

For me this ruling is crazy and needs to be changed. It is ludicrous that players can not be punished after a match if the referee failed to spot the severity of an offence. Fulham midfieler Danny Murphy, whose side have recently lost both Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele to long-term injuries after dangerous tackles, has spoken out at the need for a change.

“There’s an argument for retrospective punishments. Refs can’t always get it right. If there was a board of ex-professionals, they would know what was a bad tackle or whether a decision was right or wrong. It’s not that difficult and there’s no cost issue these days. Then the people who deserve to get punished will get punished.”

While De Jong is being singled out by his nation, he has also come into fierce criticism from pundits and fans in the Premier League, but he is not the only problem. Wolves’ Karl Henry was the culprit who left Zamora with a broken leg, and he was also sent off at the weekend for a dangerous challenge on Wigan’s Jordi Gomez. Stoke’s Andy Wilkinson incensed Fulham manager Mark Hughes with a wild challenge on Belgian forward Dembele in injury time in a recent Premier League game, while El Hadji Diouf deliberately ran into Fulham ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer to help create a Blackburn goal.

“The pace some of the players are going into tackles is ridiculous. There are no brains in the players doing that,” said Murphy. “I don’t believe they are going out to break the legs of their opponents but there’s no logic or intelligence in what they are doing.”

Despite criticising the challenges being made, Murphy does not believe the players should be taking all of the blame. “Look at Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves. You can say they’re doing what they can to win the game but the fact is that the managers are sending the players out so pumped up that inevitably there are going to be problems.

“You can look at the players and blame them. But every team has a captain and a manager who is in charge.”

It’s not just Murphy who has spoken out. Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross, who found himself in the spotlight back in February for a challenge that left Arsenal youngster Aaron Ramsey with a fractured leg, has come out in defence of his fellow professionals.

“As a player, the likes of Henry and De Jong I'm sure didn't go out to injure another player on purpose. It's part and parcel of football - they are tough-tackling central midfielders whose games are based on making tackles, winning the ball and then giving it to the ball-players. Sometimes injuries are caused.”

The likes of De Jong are old-school hard men and not the sort who would pull out of a 50/50 tackle. That's a major part of his game, and it's not something that should be taken away. But he and every other professional have a responsibility to go into tackles fairly.

Football has to remain a man’s game but the F.A. and awarding bodies should be able to hand out severe punishments for incidents likes the ones at the weekend. Van Marwijk has made a statement by extracting De Jong from the Holland squad, but players won’t calm down until they are hit where it hurts them.

That could mean their wallets, but also long-term bans for persistent rash challenges or dangerous fouls. While we don’t want to make the game a tackle-free zone, something has to be done to stop players inflicting career-threatening injuries on their opponents.

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