We often lament the scourge that is diving infiltrating the beautiful game; it’s decried as poisonous and running contrary to the spirit of fair play. Another element of the game should be equally bemoaned, though, not by its emergence but by its near-disappearance: tackling.
Perhaps 1995 was the year things changed when the ever-so-gifted Marco van Basten was forced to retire because of persistent brutalisation. It was a mishap that was a long time in the making – the 80s and early 90s were characterized by sheer violence in the name of football.
Claudio Gentile effectively whacked Maradona into submission at the ’82 World Cup, the same tournament where Harald Schumacher nearly decapitated the French striker Patrick Battiston. And who can forget Vinnie Jones absolutely maiming Gary Stevens, more or less ending his career.
Reckless violence was part of football back then, and something certainly had to be done to curb it – too many gifted players were being butchered and abused. It was only after 1995 that the tackle from behind was outlawed, punishable by a red card. Slowly that expanded to include the two-footed tackle (which has now evolved to feet not leaving the ground).
At last, the talented were being afforded the protection they deserved, and the game was benefiting; it was evident in the faster-paced, more elegant game we began to see. Crucially, it was more or less absent of the brutal, career-ending tackles that were far more commonplace in the preceding years.
However, it’s beginning to feel as if the pendulum has swung too far the other way: the maxim used to be “eyes on the ball and contact it first before anything or anyone else” – contact with your opponent was perfectly legal as long as you got the ball first. Now, it’s no longer as simple and straightforward as that.
The language we use when we talk about the game says a lot. The “midfield hardman or general” has been replaced by the “player who screens the back four” (what is “screening” anyway?). Instead of “thunderous tackle” we now say “elegant interception”. The very fact that we describe tough defenders like Nemanja Vidic and Carles Puyol as “old-fashioned” and “a throwback to the good ol’ days” should be a clue that things have changed – they are not what we expect the typical modern-day defender to be.
We frequently hear commentators or managers say things like “..yes, he got the ball, but he got the man too..”, or “..he might have gotten the ball but it was clearly dangerous play”. Thing is, it isn’t dangerous play if the player is honest in the tackle. Tackling is very much part of the game. At least, it used to be.
Under the banner of protecting players, tackling of the form where ball and man were taken has also been outlawed now. Going shoulder-to-shoulder with the attacker and out-muscling him used to be part of a good defender’s repertoire. Now it’s almost a sure-fire way of giving away a free-kick. And maybe even risking a red card too if the referee thinks you went in leaning with your arm or elbow. In modern football, players going to ground have a better chance of emerging with a card rather than the ball.
And while we’re on the topic of the pendulum swinging the other way, it seems to have swung very firmly in favour of this special category of players: goalkeepers. It seems like it is nearly impossible to challenge a goalkeeper for an aerial ball nowadays – as long as the goalkeeper goes to ground, the referee pulls play up for a foul. And we’re talking of players who are allowed the advantage of using their hands.
But just as much as putting the ball in the back of the net is celebrated, so should tackling be feted – football, the beautiful game, is beautiful precisely because of the game’s inherent duality of purpose: to score while actively preventing your opponent from scoring.
Tackling and actively winning the ball off of your opponent has now been replaced by passively shadowing your opponent, showing him down the side, and waiting for him to make a mistake so that you can nip in and nick the ball without so much as touching him. Maybe I exaggerate, but you get the point.
Football as we know it is at risk of losing its place in the category of ‘contact sports’, at this rate. Tackling used to be heralded and admired. A perfect strong, last-ditch tackle was the defender’s dream, his version of scoring a goal; now it’s being discouraged and restrained.
At least the problem of diving is out there, being talked about; nobody is saying a word about the decline of the art of tackling. Perhaps it hasn’t even been noticed, one of those things we never notice till it’s really gone.