Give police snooping into football the elbow

Ben Thatcher’s forearm smash on a Portsmouth opponent might have been brutal, but we don’t need the long arm of the law getting involved.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Ben Thatcher’s brutal forearm smash on Portsmouth’s Pedro Mendes was stomach-churning to watch. In fact, I could barely bring myself to sit through the endless slow-motion replays on BBC’s Match of the Day. But, horrific as the challenge was, I still wouldn’t want the long arm of the law intervening.

Thatcher has been fined and suspended by Manchester City and charged with ‘serious foul play’ by the FA. He now faces a lengthy ban from football – possibly for up to 12 matches. Greater Manchester Police revealed that they were investigating complaints lodged by Portsmouth fans. However, as neither Mendes nor his club have pressed charges, the Manchester City left-back may escape prosecution.

Thatcher has become pantomime villain of the week, no doubt to Cristiano Ronaldo’s relief. There has been unanimous agreement that there is ‘no place in football’ for that sort of challenge. ‘It was one of the worst incidents I’ve ever seen in the game’, said Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp. Thatcher’s cause hasn’t been helped by the fact that he has ‘previous’ when it comes to violent conduct – a vicious elbow to Nicky Summerbee’s face in 2000 while playing for Wimbledon and, more recently, a red card in a pre-season game in Shanghai for puncturing an opponent’s lung with another elbow jab.

Nor has it helped that Thatcher has been swinging his elbow with gay abandon at precisely the same time that Fifa is trying to stamp out elbowing. On the eve of the World Cup earlier this year, Fifa president Sepp Blatter urged referees to ‘pay special attention to the devil that has come into our game, elbowing.’

Thatcher may not end up in court but it is becoming increasingly common for footballers to face legal action for violent challenges. In recent years there have been a number high-profile personal injury cases brought by players whose careers have been cut short by reckless tackles. In another significant case, Duncan Ferguson, then at Rangers, was jailed for headbutting John McStay of Raith Rovers in 1994.

In the wake of Thatcher’s challenge, players’ union leader Gordon Taylor has warned footballers that they are not above the law. ‘Any contact with an elbow to the head has got to be eradicated,’ said Taylor. ‘It’s not just football, it’s the law of the land as well. The player could leave himself open to legal proceedings and players have a duty, which is a legal duty as well.’ Sports lawyer Mel Goldberg concurred. ‘The injured player can take civil action for carelessness or recklessness’, said Goldberg. ‘They can sue if the player did not take proper care and attention.’

But while football is not immune from the creeping litigation culture, it doesn’t mean that ambulance-chasing in football is a positive development. Let’s just dwell for a moment on that overused phrase ‘there’s no place in football for…[insert appropriate act of violence here]’. It goes without saying that rendering an opponent unconscious with a forearm smash falls outside the laws of the game. But football and violence are inextricably linked. Players get elbowed in the ribs or else clattered by over-the-top tackles all the time. Dare I say it but some of us actually enjoy watching a ‘robust’ tackle or the occasional on-field punch up or mass brawl.

On Saturday, Bolton’s Kevin Davies and Charlton’s Herman Hreidarsson were both red-carded for elbowing. If Hreidarsson, whose challenge appeared the more calculated of the two, had elbowed someone in the face in the checkout queue at Sainsbury’s, then he’d justifiably be facing an assault charge. But it makes no sense to treat violence on a football pitch in the same way. Why? Well, football, lest we forget, is a highly charged, ultra-competitive physical contact sport. There is a difficult balance to be struck between physical aggression and self-discipline. Invariably, in the heat of battle, even the greatest players can lose their self-control. Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi has become the iconic image of this year’s World Cup. Less well-known but equally brutal was Pelé’s elbow that floored a Uruguayan defender during the 1970 World Cup semi-final.

On a football pitch different rules apply, or at least they ought to apply. There’s an old common law principle volenti non fit injuria (‘to a willing person, no injury is done’) that used to apply in football. There was an assumption that footballers consented to the risk of injury by stepping out on to the pitch. However, the recent court cases brought by injured players have started to undermine football’s exceptional status.

Some might argue that Thatcher’s elbow on Mendes was so dangerous that it merited exceptional punishment. But, in reality, it’s difficult to determine the point at which an X-rated challenge becomes GBH. Is it the maliciousness of the offending player’s intent? If so, how do you prove it? Or is it the severity of the injury? Players have been much more seriously hurt by far less malicious challenges than Thatcher’s. No one has suggested that Herman Hreidarsson should face legal action for his elbow on Kevin Davies, yet the Bolton striker sustained a fractured cheekbone as a result. Davies will be out of action for six weeks whereas Mendes could be playing again sooner. Would that make Hreidarsson’s elbow worse than Thatcher’s forearm smash? Once you start prosecuting players for dangerous challenges, it becomes difficult to know where to draw the line.

Once the ‘duty of care’ principle is imported into football the potential implications could be ruinous to the game. Football could be transformed into an anodyne risk-free, non-contact sport. Sepp Blatter, who appears to be on a mission to kick physical contact out of football altogether, would probably welcome this prospect. But those of us who prefer our football a bit rougher round the edges should be extremely wary of letting the police and the personal injury lawyers through the turnstiles.

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