Full marks to Bert van Marwijk for his epiphany about Nigel de Jong’s flashes of overly rough play. Shame it came three months too late.
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Having happily fielded a team that brutishly tried to kick the soccer artists of Spain black and blue in the World Cup final, the Netherlands coach’s U-turn about his bruising midfielder smacks of hypocrisy.
Which isn’t to say that Van Marwijk shouldn’t be applauded for saying to De Jong that enough is enough. His tackle on Sunday that broke the tibia and fibula of Hatem Ben Arfa’s left leg might not have been intended to cause such damage, but it did show that De Jong is a liability.
So, as with a naughty schoolboy, Van Marwijk is making De Jong stand in the corner and not using him in European Championship qualifiers this Friday and next Tuesday. The reason Van Marwijk can afford to do that, of course, is because the Netherlands’ opponents are Moldova and Sweden. Neither team qualified for the World Cup in South Africa.
But De Jong will be back. Because the qualities that have again landed him in trouble – aggression, physicality and his committed and intimidating policing of the midfield – are precisely what make him valuable to the Netherlands and to Manchester City, the English club that paid millions for him in January 2009.
The sinner of today will be a hero tomorrow if, with his help, the Netherlands in 2012 secures its first European Championship since 1988 and/or Manchester City breaks Chelsea and Manchester United’s Premier League monopoly this season. Players with brutish streaks – think Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane or Roy Keane – are forgiven in soccer when they win.
Van Marwijk is no exception to that rule. In South Africa, he voiced none of the qualms he now professes, even after De Jong karate-kicked the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the final. The coach’s only real regret seemed to be losing, not that his team ruined the showpiece game with ugly and cynical soccer, 28 fouls, eight yellow cards and one red.
"Our fouls may be a sad thing," Van Marwijk said, but "I would have loved to win it with football that is not so beautiful."
It is good for soccer that questions are being asked about whether players who are paid fortunes to win are doing so by overstepping that finest of lines between all-out commitment and dangerous or reckless play and, if so, what can really be done about it beyond merely talking. Had Van Marwijk not accepted brutality when the stakes were at their highest in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, then his admonishment of De Jong and, as a consequence, his contribution to the debate would carry more weight.
Referees, yes, could do a better job and sanctions could be toughened, as they were against players using elbows as weapons, helping to drastically reduce the occurrence of facial injuries at the 2006 World Cup. But there will never be a cure-all for fouls, not least because there is no real agreement on where exactly to draw the line.
Referee Martin Atkinson saw De Jong’s tackle but did not deem it a foul.
Michel D’Hooghe, the head of FIFA’s medical committee who has long campaigned for the tougher sanctioning of violent play, says the fact that soccer is faster than it used to be and players are stronger is "certainly not an excuse" for them clattering violently into each other and only "means you should be twice as careful."
"If you say, ‘We are used to hard tackling,’ you say ‘We are used to bone fractures,"’ he says. "We should not get used to criminality on the field."
He welcomes Van Marwijk’s decision to drop De Jong, saying: "I heard that with pleasure."
Former player and agent Simon Stainrod, who worked on the deal that took Ben Arfa to Newcastle this summer, says that although De Jong’s tackle was "reckless" and "could have been avoided," soccer is "a man’s game," that "it’s a fallacy to say it is more dangerous now," and that in English soccer, "its signature tune, if you like, is a bit of aggression."
"The game in my era was reasonably violent and prior to my era it was very violent and players went out to hurt each other. There’s less of that now," says Stainrod, who played professionally in England, France and Scotland from the mid-1970s to mid-’90s.
Ben Arfa, who announced his Premier League arrival with a wonderfully struck winner against Everton on Sept. 18, is now expected to be out for six months.
His fans and paymasters wouldn’t settle for anything less.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.