The Seldom Seen Kick

Vinnie Jones, currently appearing as the face of hands-only resuscitation, made a living in various ways, including as a hod carrier, a professional footballer, and an actor. Once in the public eye he cultivated an image as a ‘hard man’, a loose term which the British Heart Foundation are currently trying to use to their advantage, as Guy Ritchie previously did. Whether players whose own livelihoods were affected by Jones’ on-field butchery, such as the former England international Gary Stevens, are laughing along with the CPR ad, is doubtful.

A few years ago, long after Jones was able to end his own footballing career at a timing of his own choosing rather then due to a nasty injury, he boasted about his fouls and intimidating tactics in a television programme of football talking heads, which was to documentary as ‘Life is Short’ was to comedy.

Also included in the programme was his former Wimbledon team-mate John Fashunu, giving anecdotes of how he would ‘work’ referees. Fashunu, no stranger himself to hospitalizing players with on-the-field challenges, laughed as he recalled how he always took the time to know about the children of referees as he asked after them. While more manipulative than sinister, it was a ploy that went hand-in-hand with a style of game that benefited from the goodwill of referees who were constantly called upon to interpret the laws of the game aka “use their common sense”.

Since Jones has retired the dangerous two-footed tackled is now out-lawed in the game, but two high-profile games in the last week showed brutality on the pitch being employed by teams with a lot more footballing talent than the Wimbledon team of the late eighties ever had.

On paper Real Madrid are as strong as any team in the World, yet when they have played Barcelona in Jose Mourinho’s reign they have resorted to negative tactics, which was typified in the first-leg of last week’s Copa Del Rey quarter-final at the Bernabeu by the Portuguese defender Pepe, who, amongst other things, stood on Lionel Messi’s hand, in an action he later claimed was unintentional. It is not the only example of Pepe’s own way of trying to cope with being outclassed by the best player of the World; in the League game between the two sides last April, he led with his arm as Messi ran towards goal, an action where pictures show the only regret from himself and his manager was for receiving a caution.

The style of play Madrid have adopted when playing Barcelona, or rather lack of it, is an embodiment of their manager who supposedly centres all attention on himself to take the pressure of his players, yet still found it necessary to provocatively run on the pitch at the Camp Nou when Inter fortuitously overcame Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final, after Barca wrongly had a goal that would have levelled up the tie disallowed. It was an action of a man who thinks he is bigger than not just his club but the game, and his constant failure to get the better of his current club’s bitter rivals leads him to pursue a spoiling game, rather than a positive approach based on the wealth of talent at his disposal.

Mourinho received rare jeers from his own crowd yesterday, the first sign they are waking up to a philosophy that does little credit to the status of their club and city, while always seeming to end in humiliation on the pitch come El Clasico time. After nearly gauging an eye out of a Barcelona coach himself last year, Real Madrid’s El Clasico policy under Mourinho is no longer a surprise, and with football still lagging behind other sports in its adoption of using video technology during a game it is often reliant on authorities taking retrospective action for just punishment for justice.

For Barcelona, who continue to have the better of Real Madrid, despite offences going unnoticed by officials during a game, this hasn’t been a big problem. But yesterday at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester the failure of officials to notice Mario Balotelli’s petulant but dangerous stamp at the head of a prostrate Scott Parker had an effect on the result, and possibly the outcome of the League Title. Balotelli was the player that won, and then took, the penalty at the very death of the game, against a Tottenham Hotspur side as good as them, and any side in the country.

Retrospective action is now required on both Balotelli and Joleon Lescott, who should have also received a red card for a forearm smash in the face of Younes Kaboul in the same game. It took years for the laws to properly change until malicious tackles were marginalised, so deterring players whose intentions are greater then just winning the ball, and lessoning the possibility of serious injury. Why football is so slow in further improving the officiating the game with modern technology in-play is more complex, and perhaps underpinned by the truth that it suits some people in football that injustice and wrong decisions can be blamed on human error.

A simplistic argument against video evidence during a game would be that a match in which Jose Mourinho was manager and Howard Webb was referee could last an extra half-hour, so often would the stoppages be due to questionable off-the-ball incidents and incompetent refereeing. But of course were action to be taken during a game on Pepe’s stamp, Lescott’s impression of Giant Haystacks, and Ballotelli’s potentially blinding back heel, it would gradually eradicate that sort of behaviour.

Sure, there would still be ex-footballers as talking heads on compilation shows, and appearing as occasional pundits, reminiscing back nostalgically to a time when maiming and bloodshed was allowed in their day. And video technology itself would take a little bit of time and thought to introduce so it is workable, fair and reasonable, but that is the case with all new processes.

The idea there would be nothing to talk about in football if it wasn’t for matchday controversy is for the birds, bandied around by people who have obviously never seen great teams, great players, great goals, understand tactics or have eaten pies inside a ground. And in an age when pictures are instantly broadcast around the world, any sport where the results are dubious will eventually lack credibility, and suffer.

MG