It’s time horror tackles were punished, not brushed aside

Joe Bennett’s tackle on Leroy Sane caused outrage to most who’ve seen it.

During a game in which Cardiff City – currently third in the Championship – decided that their best way of getting a result was to kick their opponents, the Premier League leaders, around the pitch, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a tackle which would go over the top.

Bennett’s did that and then some. Since then, to his credit, he’s had the courage to come out and apologise for his mistake, tweeting that his tackle was mistimed. In doing so, he tacitly acknowledged what we could all see: that it was a bad one – why apologise for it at all if not?

So far, fair enough in some ways. Football is a game where bad things can happen – with so many athletes of prime physicality exerting themselves in a sporting endeavour where contact is unavoidable, injuries are part and parcel of the game. Sometimes tackles are mistimed and we all know that passions can run high just watching the game, let alone playing it. So for a player to come out and apologise when he’s stepped over that line is admirable.

And yet, something troubles me about it.

For one thing, the fact that one of the best and most exciting young players in the Premier League will now be ruled out for a period of time is clearly sad. Especially in a World Cup year. Again, that’s part of the game, but there’s nothing wrong with feeling a certain sadness – indeed, even anger – at that.

It’s also been something that Manchester City have had to suffer more than usual this season. Being so far ahead of the rest at the top of the table seems to have made the rest of the league feel as though they can’t compete. Perhaps they can’t, but when the frustration of some boils over into the sorts of tackles that Dele Alli and Jason Puncheon made on Kevin de Bruyne in December it’s clearly a problem. Indeed, one that goes beyond mere football: a player’s livelihood can be on the line. The stakes are that high with horror tackles.

And so the most troubling part of Cardiff City’s roughhousing of Pep Guardiola’s side is surely Bennett’s admission that his bad tackle was the result of an attempt to stop a counter-attack.

Actually trying to foul an opponent surely aggravates the footballing crime, as it were.

If a drunk driver hits someone, we assume it’s because they’re drunk: an accident, possibly, but certainly one which is aggravated by the initial intoxication. If a speeding car hits someone, we assume the recklessness comes because of the speed. If a car hits someone without any of these extra factors, we can sometimes see it as an unfortunate accident – there’ll still be a punishment, but it’s not aggravated by any initial crime.

This is similar, if not the same. Stopping a counter attack by attempting to foul an opponent is already a ‘crime’ – so to speak – in the world of football. But just like speeding, it becomes less about the smaller crime in its own right, and more about the fact that it makes the bigger crime worse. One that makes it difficult to accept that it’s an accident. Speed and you’ll get a fine. Speed and hit someone and you’ll get a much harsher punishment.

This isn’t a call to to throw the book at Bennett. Nor is it to add to the outrage around what was a bad tackle with potentially terrible consequences for a young player who has lit up the Premier League in the last year or so. Instead, this is about defining where the limits are and why we watch football.

It feels like an indisputable fact that Pep Guardiola is correct: we watch the game for the players and they must be protected first and foremost.

But whilst stopping a counter-attack shouldn’t be thought of as something outside of the game (you do it and get a yellow card; in a sense you buy the avoidance of a dangerous counter at the price of a yellow card) the consequence of seriously hurting a player should be. The foul for which you get a slap on the wrist should mean a lengthy ban once you injure your opponent – even if all you meant was a light trip.

Why? Because we don’t want injuries like this, or like the ones Kevin de Bruyne could have suffered last month. If your only recourse is to bring your opponent down, fine, but the risk of injury should bring with it a risk of a ban. That’s something a player should have to weigh up before making a tackle he knows is going to be a foul.

And that will help. Not overnight, but it should make players more responsible by forcing them to think about what it is they’re doing before they do it. And that can only be a good thing.

This is a sorry tale of a physical game gone too far, but it’s also something the game should look at stamping out if at all possible: professional fouls are part of the game, but when they come at the cost of a serious injury, surely that should mean paying a higher price.

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