THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 3: TIME TO PROTECT MESSI

This unpublished piece was written on June 1 2016, prior to the commencement of the two continental competitions mentioned.

TIME TO PROTECT MESSI – AND OTHERS

The coming weeks will see major tournaments in the two geographical powerhouses of world football. The Copa America begins in the United States on 3 June and the European Championships commence in France on June 10. The two events should showcase most of the world’s top players, including the best, Argentinian Lionel Messi, who will celebrate his twenty ninth birthday during the Copa. Let’s hope it will be a celebration.

It has been a good season for Spanish football generally. The all-Madrid Champions’ League final took place on 28 May, underlining the dominance of Spanish club football in Europe as Real beat Atletico in a penalty shootout. Messi, and his club Barcelona, did not feature ( they went out to Atletico) but domestically Barcelona completed the League and Cup double with a 2 – 0 victory over Sevilla in the Spanish Copa Del Rey final on 22 May, a game decided by two inspirational passes in extra time from Messi. The match demonstrated yet again the considerable gulf in standards between La Liga and the Premiership, coming as it did the day after a mediocre English Cup Final and only three days after Sevilla had accounted for Liverpool in the Europa League decider.

Yet there was another, and disturbing, aspect to the Sevilla game. Messi was fouled nine times, quite apart from the lunges and off-target near misses that he rode because of his superb ability. Several of the challenges were crude, meriting yellow cards – two were awarded – and on one occasion Messi unusually made clear his frustration by making the card gesture. In his last game in the Nou Camp, against local rivals, Espanol, where admittedly there is a history, he was fouled six times. The Sevilla game moreover was book-ended with another pairing at the beginning of the season, last August, the Super Cup final, won 5 – 4 by Barcelona in a match where Messi was fouled seven times.

His season statistics make interesting reading. All told Messi had 56 starts – he missed several weeks in late 2015 with a hamstring injury – and scored 46 goals. He was fouled 151 times with opponents picking up 22 yellow cards. While this total may appear moderate – under three per game – a closer look reveals that, in 22 games he was fouled once or never. Well over a third of fouls were committed in just ten games, with, adding to the Sevilla games, 38 fouls in eight competitive internationals (six Copa America, two World Cup qualifiers). In those eight games moreover, he was restricted to one goal. Factor in those tackles he dodged and the message is clear – you stop Messi by kicking him around the park and the more there is at stake the closer the attention from defenders will be.

It is of course natural for teams, whether club or country, to seek to neutralise the opponent’s best player, but there are legitimate ways of doing this, as Atletico demonstrated with Messi in the Champions’ League. And, with the Copa America imminent, the issue arises whether more should be or could be done by the football authorities to protect Messi. Currently he is recovering after a back injury sustained in a recent friendly against Honduras (in a 2014 pre – World Cup “friendly” England were kicked repeatedly at the same venue). Messi is expected to be fit for Argentina’s opening game against Chile on June 6 – a repeat of last year’s final which saw Messi fouled nine times including one brutal kick to his midriff (watch it on YouTube) as Argentina were held scoreless, eventually losing on penalties.

The case for introducing stricter refereeing to protect Messi and other creative players now is a strong one. Messi is not getting any younger and is arguably more vulnerable and slightly slower than before while defenders are better drilled on how to neutralise him. The Chilean coach reportedly studied many hours of video footage of Barcelona to work out how best to stop him; the nine fouls speak volumes. Yet Messi, Ronaldo, and other creative players are the lifeblood of the game, not the thugs who scythe them down. People pay to see them play, not to see them hacked down.

Whether any action will be taken – including the ultimate sanction of a red card – is unclear. There’s much nonsense talked and written about “destroying the match as a spectacle” by early ejections or even worse, that fouls are unavoidable in what is a physical contact sport. All of which leaves a bad taste. Of course there will be fouls but not as part of a strategic plan. There are still memories of how Pele – the greatest footballer of his era – was kicked savagely as Brazil were eliminated from the 1966 World Cup, or how Maradona was hounded and provoked by Italy in 1982. For whatever reason, in both follow up tournaments creativity was preserved. Pele had his crowning hour in 1970 and Maradona in 1986 (though one English writer posed the question about Maradona’s wonder goal as to why he wasn’t simply fouled going through!).

Some form of edict may well have been issued in 1986. An Uruguayan was red carded in the first minute for a crude foul on Scotland’s most creative player, Gordon Strachan, while folk legend in Belgium has it that the reason Maradona was allowed to embark on those mesmerising runs in the semi-final (scoring two and just missing another pair) was that the Belgian defenders feared a red card – thus missing the Final – if they were to tackle him. Enough said on the deterrent effect.

It’s surely time for FIFA and the regional bodies to monitor the situation and take action as necessary. The two pending tournaments should tell us a lot. Hopefully what we learn will be positive. But I wouldn’t count on it.

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