Broken Promises – How the Game is Failing Player Safety

And another! Simon Furnivall gives us his one penny’s worth. And what a penny it is too. Here he examines the worrying increase in ‘horror’ leg injuries, why the trend is becoming the norm and what we can do about it… Follow him at @SFurnivall on twitter

If you were to spend your time asking football fans what is the one thing that could be done to improve the game, you would probably get a wide range of answers. Amongst the most popular would certainly be the introduction of goal line technology and the insistence that Sepp Blatter be hung from the nearest rafter, but how many would answer that the very safety of those who play the game must be improved?

On the 30th April this year, the millions who watch the Premier League every week were consumed by the did it/didn’t it controversy of whether Frank Lampard’s shot had actually crossed the line. What that overshadowed was a story far more significant to the game, and which is becoming more of a pressing issue every year.

In the eight days before Lampard’s ‘goal’, two players in MLS, Steve Zakuani and David Ferreira, suffered horrific leg injuries. Just a week later a third, Javier Morales, would too find the bones in his leg no longer aligned as intended. All three were the victims of hard challenges – of varying degrees of recklessness – by opponents and whilst they were left to contemplate the rest of the season from a hospital bed, their assailants would soon be back plying their trade.

Javier Morales is not the only victim of horror tackles in this year's MLS

It is no coincidence that Zakuani, Ferreira and Morales are three of the more skillful players in Major League Soccer, and it is by no means a phenomenon isolated in Amercia. Back in September, Lionel Messi was on the end of a tackle from Atlético Madrid defender Tomáš Ujfaluši so late that arrived some three days after the match had finished. The world’s favourite footballer was extremely lucky to come out of the incident with only a minor ankle sprain.

The Premier League has had its fair share on nasty incidents this season too. Bobby Zamora and Hatem Ben Arfa left the field with broken legs, whilst Nani was lucky to escape one having been on the end of Jamie Carragher’s ill-advised unge. Stuart Holden suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury – and a cut on his knee that required twenty six stitches – when he and Johnny Evans both went full-blooded and studs first into a challenge, and in the penultimate week of the season, Gareth Bale was lucky to escape more serious injury when Charlie Adam trod clumsily on his ankle.

When you add in the injuries from recent seasons to Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo and Abou Diaby, along with countless others, it paints a worrying trend of players suffering more and more season and potentially career ending injuries. As more and more players leave the field in such circumstances, we are left with the question, why?

Are players becoming more reckless in their tackling, are professionals going out to intentionally intimidate each other, is it the inexorable conclusion of ‘anti-football’, or is it simply bad luck in a contact sport which will always see players hurt? To my mind, there are probably elements of all four.

Certainly it is hard to argue against the idea that some injuries are sheer bad luck. Studs getting caught in turf, a genuine, honest tackle with unfortunate consequences, these will always be an unfortunate part of the game; the risks people take in doing what they love.

The example held up here would be that of Antonio Valencia’s injury against Rangers in the Champions League in September. The winger’s studs caught in the turf and his ankle collapsed beneath him, but there was no suggestion of wrongdoing on anyone’s part.

Antonio Valencia's injury: innocuous, unfortunate, but no less shocking

However, many of these injuries are being caused by an overly aggressive style in a game that seems to get quicker every year. There is no doubt, I can’t believe even that the teams themselves would deny it, that there are some who make up for their technical deficiencies by trying to assert themselves physically. The phrase ‘get in their faces’ is a regularly used euphemism.

I do not for one second believe that the Stokes and Blackburns of the world go out with an intent to injure, but it can be argued that such injuries are an inevitable conclusion of their more physical style. Speaking on the Sky Sports show ‘Sunday Supplement’, the day after Aaron Ramsey’s injury, Times journalist Paddy Barclay spoke on the matter.

“What we saw yesterday for me was completely unacceptable in the same way that it was unacceptable when Martin Taylor inadvertently, accidentally broke Eduardo’s leg. There’s a wildness and physicality about the English game which I don’t think is healthy.”

Shawcross may not be 'that type of player', but that didn't make a difference to Aaron Ramsay's leg

It was hard to assign intent to Shawcross’ challenge on Ramsey, just as it was when Taylor left Eduardo in a broken heap. But both incidents were cases of defenders going hard into tackles with their feet off the ground, being beaten to the ball by quicker players and being out of control to the extent that they could not pull out. The very nature of these tackles against players of the speed of foot and touch that we see in the modern game means such injuries will continue to be a relatively frequent occurrence.

There is also the darker side, the tackles to which it is difficult not to ascribe motive. Zakuani was the victim of an horrific challenge by Brian Mullan. The Colorado Rapids midfielder was frustrated at not having been awarded a free kick for a challenge by Zakuani’s team mate, Tyson Wahl, and lined up Zakuani from several yards away. He launched himself, studs showing, at the Seattle winger and made heavy contact with his shin, the snapping of Zakuani’s tibia and fibula clearly audible across the television mics.

Mullan received a ten match suspension and a $5,000 fine, a punishment far more befitting of the crime than many tackles with equally horrific consequences meet. The ban evoked memories of that landed upon Standard Liège midfielder, Axel Witsel, when in August 2009 he was suspended for eight matches after his over-the-ball stamp left the career of Anderlecht’s Marcin Wasilewski in serious jeopardy.

In my opinion it is punishments such as these which need to be doled out on a far more regular basis if this rising trend of injuries is to be reversed. The prospect of a three match ban for so recklessly endangering the safety of their fellow professionals has not stopped players going into over-the-ball, studs up challenges. There needs to be an effective deterrent (some suggest the the player in question should be banned for as long as his injured opponent is out of the game) and the prospect of being sidelined for ten, twelve, even fifteen games might just provide that.

Football is a far faster game than it used to be, and the pace isn’t about to slow down any time soon. There needs to be a recognition that goes hand-in-hand, however, that with increased pace comes increased danger, and the safety of the players involved is of paramount importance. Whether it be the reckless stupidity of tackles such as Shawcross’ on Ramsey or Taylor’s on Eduardo, or those with more sinister intent as perpetrated by Mullan and Witsel, a commitment across the game to eradicating this danger is the single biggest improvement that could be made to the game I love.

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4 responses to “Broken Promises – How the Game is Failing Player Safety

  1. Callum Maclean May 31, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Nice article, well thought-out, researched and written. I see where you’re coming from in the banning of players, but sometimes teams that are that far up-against it need to try and scare the opposition into playing their way. I’m not condoning broken legs, and those tackles that lead to it, but I don’t want to see players who are trying to get an advantage over a team that have so many over them taken away.

    • smfurnivall June 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, always appreciated.
      I understand your point that teams have to be allowed to combat those with superior technique, and I don’t for the first minute want to remove all physicality from the game. However, I feel that studs up, over the ball challenges (even without intent to injure, such as Shawcross and Taylor made) are more thuggery than physicality. I have no problem with a well made, hard challenge that doesn’t present a danger to opposition players, but too many players are going over the ball and I think it’s currently only a matter of time before someone’s career is ended by such a tackle.

  2. Outside Mid June 1, 2011 at 2:18 am

    I fear these types of injuries will never be legislated out of the game as even today’s slower players are still faster and in better shape than the players of yesteryear, thus granting them greater force with which to break shins. One wonders which is the more debilitating for today’s athlete: recurrent injuries of this sort such as Stu Holden has endured or concussions, which can go largely unnoticed or ignored until it is too late?

  3. Pingback: Round Up: 6th June « Lovely Left Foot

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