Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: De Jong has shown FA must deal with dangerous play

Here is a phrase that was not exactly bubbling on the lips one recent cold night in Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium: thank heavens for Bert van Marwijk.

Back in July, Van Marwijk's Netherlands team had just attempted, mercifully without success, to beat Spain in the World Cup final with a performance which seemed to have found its inspiration in the Stone Age. However, one of the worst of the culprits, Manchester City midfielder Nigel de Jong, yesterday learnt that there may be limits for the perpetrators of violent play.

Van Marwijk's decision yesterday to drop De Jong from the Dutch team after seeing him perform the tackle that broke an opponent's leg in two places at the City of Manchester stadium on Sunday seems to be saying that, no, it simply isn't good enough to endanger a fellow professional's livelihood, carelessly, recklessly, or perhaps even maliciously and then run for cover behind a great bank of indifference or platitudes, often both at the same time.

The Dutch coach declared that De Jong's behaviour had been "too wild".

By comparison, it was probably more depressing than amazing that this most significant football news story of the weekend was whisked through the BBC's Sunday Match of the Day 2 showcase so quickly it scarcely amounted to a mumbled aside.

Sky, the Premier League's host broadcaster, was not much better while pleading the potential squeamishness of viewers who apparently might have been offended or traumatised by seeing what happens when a footballer's leg is broken in two places.

On the BBC, the leg-breaking tackle on Newcastle's exciting French import Hatem Ben Arfa was covered in less time than it took presenter Colin Murray to emerge from a time-warped effusion about Blackpool's victory at Anfield being one of the great convulsions in English football.

Presumably, he was dreaming up another excruciating bon mot during League Two Northampton's Carling Cup triumph scarcely a week earlier.

The FA disciplinary committee will surely have to do a whole lot better.

It will have to cut through the complacency that is most pronounced in those broadcasting outlets which have paid huge amounts, some of it directly from the licence-payers, to show their too frequently soft-focused view of a game that may be vital in the ratings war but does from time to time throw up some contentious and important moral issues.

One of them is whether De Jong, who many will remember for his horrendous tackle on Xabi Alonso in that World Cup final, one so violent and uncontrolled that it eclipsed everything else in the Netherlands' systematic thuggery, should be allowed to escape without, apart from Van Marwijk's, a proper examination of the tackle that broke Ben Arfa's leg in two places.

Yes, football is a physical game and these things happen. However, sometimes they are also part of a pattern and when we look at the latest incident involving De Jong – courtesy of YouTube in the absence of proper coverage elsewhere – it is impossible not, at the very least, to suspect that this is one of them.

City's assistant manager, Brian Kidd, makes the traditional defence in these circumstances. De Jong, we are told, made his tackle "without malice". This was also said of Birmingham City's Martin Taylor when he wiped out the season of Arsenal striker Eduardo two years ago. As Eduardo left the field on a stretcher and with an oxygen mask, the rush was to say that Taylor just "wasn't that kind of player", and that such a catastrophe was the last thing he wanted when he made his grotesquely mistimed tackle.

Maybe it was so, but then the fury of Arsène Wenger was not so hard to understand. Nor was that of Newcastle's Chris Hughton on Sunday when he saw a player of skill and invention cut down so early in the season – and with not even a yellow card for the tackler, who did make some contact with the ball, with his left foot, while trailing his right leg through the back of Ben Arfa's left.

While City officials talked about an absence of form, they could hardly claim a lack of "form". In fact, Ben Arfa was De Jong's second victim of a broken leg this year. Before the World Cup, the Netherlands played the United States in a friendly, one that ruined the hopes of the American player Stuart Holden that he would make it to the great tournament.

Most staggering of all, though, was the kung fu assault on Alonso which escaped what seemed like an inevitable red card, a terrible lapse which the English referee Howard Webb admitted to with some anguish weeks later.

Today there is no challenger to Ben Arfa in the anguish department as he contemplates the abrupt suspension of an English season to which he promised to bring much touch and skill. It is shocking not so much that a referee failed to register the significance of the Newcastle player's fate until it was obvious that he had been horribly injured, but that such an incident, inevitable in the speed of the modern game, was not automatically sent for examination by experts with a clear idea of what they were seeing.

It is still another area where football is inattentive to matters of most vital concern – and basic decency. Certainly, Van Marwijk, however unlikely his credentials may appear, is a welcome visitor to a vacuum which was already an outright scandal before Hatem Ben Arfa went down.

Belfast Telegraph


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