The discussion about the use of excessive force and violence in the game seems to be rearing its ugly head on a far more frequent basis. With each new incident of a crunching tackle or a malicious elbow we see the blame labelled at the players, at the managers, at the referees, at the FA or sometimes even the fans. It’s deemed unacceptable but when nobody knows who to blame it becomes a thorny issue to fix and sometimes even discuss. In this article I am going to have a brief look at historically what has role of violent play been and in what avenues of the game should the use of force and violence really have its attention switched too?
Current perception would have you believe that the types of tackles we currently see are a modern problem, that the current state of the game is somehow exacerbating the situation somehow. How true is this though? Well if we look back to the very early forms of the regulated game we can see some novels approaches to fixing perceived violence within the sport. At one point players were asked to play while holding two crowns in the palm of each hand to ensure they could grab and pull opposition players. When penalties where first trialled as a method to try and punish in game excessive force, goalkeepers would often simply stand to one side of the goal as they did not like their sporting integrity to be questioned by the referee. Can you imagine a player nowadays being this perturbed by the perception of their own integrity? So why has the violent side of the game been such a problem and why is there such a clear opposition within the way the game is perceived and what is classed as acceptable?
For the purpose of this piece I’m going to cast two known managers as the characters, though it should be noted that they are simply representative of a character type. I personally find it easier if I can visualise my protagonists so have selected these two as my actors, though what I mention will not really be specific to them. The two characters I’m going to utilise are Arsene Wenger and Sam Allardyce. One known for his longing for fair play and integrity, the other known for a more boisterous approach to the game and a face like a pitbull licking piss of a nettle.
Let’s start at the beginning. Those who helped form the original set of rules that governed the game often did so because then the act of playing the game was equally, if not more, important than winning. It’s important to note that it wasn’t simply a set of rules to govern the soon to be professional teams but also so that a unified game could be played at all levels, for example in schools. You can see the Wenger character in the Victorian aristocrats, the dandies, who set about creating the original rules. They believed in an honest approach to the game and losing a match was deemed unimportant as long as you had upheld a moral stance. Systemically we can see an opposition to this view, one that states the by crook or by hook we shall win, even if this means winning ugly.
So on one side with have Arsene Wenger, the typical Victorian gentleman, a bastion of integrity and fair play. On the other we have Sam Allardyce, the stout working-class Northerner who believes in the installation of a winning attitude over style and honour.
Historically you could probably trace back a sociological reasoning for these mentalities being in place. The bastions of fair play where more often than not of a richer and more affluent lineage, whereas the players of the more established northern teams are from a poorer working-class background. The reasoning behind playing this game and what they want to achieve from it could be drawn from the backgrounds of the teams and players themselves. The Victorian gentleman will play this as a past time; the working-classer will play it as a release. The working-class players may be considered to have more of a deep-seeded desire to win at something, even if by any means necessary.
The beauty of the game is about the battle of these two aspects. It always has been and it always should be. You will almost always find that a good mixture of flair and strength is what makes a great team. Of course the stronger tackles need be regulated better but in the grander scheme of things the amount of truly horrendous challenges we see, considering the vast amount of football there is on the offer, is relatively small. Just because we can suddenly see these challenges happening in super-slow motion and in high-definition, hell even in 3D if you’ve got the extra money lying around, doesn’t mean that this style of football is any more abhorrent or any more of a problem than it has ever been before. It’s all part and parcel of the risk of the game, there may be a fine line between a strong tackle and an injury but like with many things in the game it’s this fine line in which we’re interested in. It’s what draws you in as a fan, as a player and as an obsessive. The fine line between the post and the back of the net, the fine line between a super save and sloppy mistake, and some times the fine line between perfectly timed tackle and a crunching foul.
The question we need to ask when we dissect this subject is what the purpose of football is. Is it a format of entertainment, or is it a platform to attain success? The assertion of ones masculinity is often attributed to sport, both in playing and watching, and within this many problems can occur. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the violence found in the stands turned a lot of people away from the game and lead to it becoming an unpopular sport, which seems strange to think now. This ingrained macho outlook attached to the sport is hard to shift and the ramifications of it are often felt more heavily away from the field of play.
As fans we now demand a high level of maturity from players. Especially in England we are slowly but surely moving away from the old perception and belief that somehow a crunching tackle makes you more of a man. We heavily deplore the use of excessive force, and rightfully so, though how does sport effect the fans themselves and do sets of fans perhaps need to look a little closer to home before pointing the finger? A study looking into the correlation between cities sport team losing and police reports of domestic violence, undertaken in 2004, shows a clear spike in incidents after a poor result. Usually there was around a 10% increase in police reports of a man returning home and striking his partner. Acpo (Association of Chief Police Officers) reported in 2010 that during a World Cup they usually see a 25% increase in reports of domestic abuse. A day in which the home nation had done poorly would see the figure rise by around 31%. It’s important to note that this is just in relation to reported incidents, on average it’s believed that a woman suffering from domestic abuse will often wait until around the fortieth incident before they feel it’s at crisis point. Deputy Chief Constable Carmel Napier commented, “It is often under-reported because people do try to manage it and hope it will go away. They just want it to stop, and try to live for the good times.”
For all the reporting of a bad tackle during a football game, for all the talk of how football isn’t what it once was, that men are no longer men, that there is something to be savoured in a crunching tackle there is a hidden side to the game that is not reported as much as it should. It’s easy to deride the likes of Arsene Wenger for their open opposition of violent play but his stance does hold good weight. Why do we play or watch the game? Is it entertainment or success? Perhaps we do need to adjust our moral stance upon the game and see it for what it really is, and that should be a form of entertainment. The over-selling of the importance of success, or at least perceived success, means that the inherent violence in the accepted masculinity within the game is seeping into different walks of life. If a man goes home and strikes his wife because his team lost then there are inherent problems within the game that may never be fixed, even with video technology.
Abraham Lincoln sums up the subject well with this quote, “Force is all conquering, but it’s victories are short-lived”.