MY FIRST FORAY INTO A TRUE BRAWL DISGUISED AS A FOOTBALL GAME was when I was 16-years-old. I had been “recruited” by a group of stockyard workers from Eastern Europe to play in a league comprised of teams with former semi-professional and professional players spliced with players whose greatest contribution to the game was not killing someone during the 90 minutes they had license to maim.
The centre-back on my team was rumored to have played professionally in Poland. He was menacing in the tackle yet superbly-skilled on the ball. He looked after his teammates, especially me as I endured a footballing baptism soaked in cold mud and blood. One game, the other team’s striker found his niche and unleashed hell on players by stepping on toes, pulling hair, raking calves with his boot studs, throwing a deceptively effective reverse headbutts on aerial challenges.
But it wasn’t the high and late tackles that shocked me, nor was it the directed spitting, headbutting, crotch grabbing, kidney punches, shoving matches and posturing. It was something entirely more malicious and disgusting. This opposing striker can only be described as being “built like a brick shithouse” was starting to turn the tide of a meaningless Sunday league game on his own. That is, until he knelt down to tie his bootlace.
That’s when our centre-back sprinted over and placed his right boot on the kneeling man’s collar bone and raked down the man’s chest and midsection in a violent exercise and attempted on-site dissection. Blood blotted the man’s white and blue kit from underneath as he pulled up his shirt to reveal a wound from clavicle to bellybutton. Most of us were shocked at the sight. All were appalled at his manic laughter and willingness to carry-on playing after changing his shirt. After the game ended with a flurry of tackles and right hooks, one of my teammates shouted, “Jerzy ‘zippered’ him!” with an ominous sense of pride.
Bully, hack, thug – all of these words aptly describe the type of player modern football has relegated to the bastard child chained to the water heater in the basement. The collective masses know these unglamorous characters still exist, but they must be kept locked away, out of sight, out of mind – as these players represent a certain ugliness in football. The game now celebrates the attacking player and the creative. Watching players pull out of tackles, flail at the slightest touch, play-act is proof that football is a place for the true performers.
Somewhere in the early-1990s, something changed. The Agitator became an antediluvian agent of chaos unfit for the game’s evolution. On some level, the shift away from the deploying overly-aggressive players can be considered the right move for the sport. After all, fans have grown sick of watching their team’s creative geniuses and most skilled players be continually injured by vicious hacks from opponents who aren’t interested in operating within the laws of the game.
It comes as no surprise that Diego Costa is one such player whose constant interactions and disruptions on the pitch spark such intense debate. A player this ilk is modern football’s bull in a china shop, and over the years the sport has evolved to unprecedented skill levels and blended the requirements and capabilities for the baseline player to result in more technical less physical players. But what has permeated the ethos of modern football more than the physical and tactical evolution of the game is the celebration of the individual and the highlighting of individual skill and flair.
Looking at the dominant Nottingham Forest sides under Brian Clough or Liverpool under Bill Shankly and later Bob Paisley, the dynamism of excellent and attractive team play has long been admired. The Ajax sides of the 1970-1990s playing Total Football demonstrated the power of the team, as did Hungary’s Magical Magyars of the 1950s.
However, football has changed and attitudes of the type of player to champion have as well. It wasn’t that long ago that the likes of Vinnie Jones, Ron “Chopper” Harris, Norman Hunter, and Nobby Stiles marauded up and down football pitches maiming opponents. Perhaps one reason these types of players are less prevalent is the fact that skill sells and aggressive play quells. Furthermore, the immense exposure the game now revels in with increased television coverage coincided with the shift away from the “hard man” to supremely-skilled player. But is that type of player a beacon of honesty and can he truly be the litmus test for morality on the football pitch?
With the negation of football’s “hard man” has been the emergence and thriving of the sneaky and theatric player looking to sway the opinion of the officials and governing authorities by hook or by crook. Just as some rightly say there is no excuse for violent conduct on the field, could it be argued there is no justification for diving, play acting or distracting immoral theatrics to sway an outcome?
The truth is football has marginalized the players deployed and tasked with being lawless agents of chaos of the game within the game. As such, the game has lost much of the fervor associated with the fiery battles that stirred the crowds of British football for decades. Football has also lost many of the on-field generals that played the role of constable in an effort to protect their players from the opponent’s henchmen. Some teams are devoid of true leadership as the punishment for retaliation, no matter how justifiable it may seem, has increased in severity across the world’s elite leagues. As a result, the sight of Diego Costa, Nigel de Jong, Marco Materazzi, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Gennaro Gattuso, Joey Barton or Martin Škrtel lashing out on the pitch rightly causes uproar for a few reasons.
The first reason is their role is to not only disrupt the flow of the game but also to instigate others to the point of reprimand. Whether or not the player is doing his team a service, or is in fact governed by madness is another story – usually the one that garners the most attention and headlines. Secondly, iconic figures like Roy Keane, Tony Adams, Bryan Robson, Patrick Vieira, Fernando Hierro, Carles Puyol, Paolo Maldini whose play was contrived on leadership and regulation have retired and players in this mold seem to be a dying breed.
The glamour of leading is supplanted by looking out for one’s self – the majority of players are conditioned to play for themselves before all else. Toughness and resiliency are character traits before they are football traits and it seems these get extracted earlier and earlier in player development for some. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise when Diego Costa’s aggressiveness and behind-the-scenes face rakes, throat grabs and cheek scratches goad opponents into a reactionary frenzy resulting in the requisite rallying to sway the referee’s decision – or make the decision for the official as he will always catch the reaction over the initial provocation.
The result is often a collective rebuke as aggressive as the agitator’s play itself. The ensuing chiding and hiding on behalf of fans, media and opposing coaches becomes the primary story, yet the effectiveness of the agitator’s actions are the real story. There is no question that advocating or defending violent action only hampers the game’s evolution, but more than a calculated series of madness-fuelled moments, this is a really rallying call exposing the lack of equalizers in modern football. To be a captain used to mean more than merely wearing the armband. Additionally, in an age where loyalty and leadership are defined only by semantics, football is calling out for stalwarts looking to lead rather than hide to re-emerge.
Much of what we see out of these agitators marries their culture to the football they play. Scrappiness is a trait that few players can turn on and off. Those who are overly-arrogant on the pitch display a similar aura about them off it. To be honest, most of these players aren’t really “hard men”, but like the dissenters of football’s past, they too are still fuelled by a sense of authoritative headhunting. Beneath the surface, the players who get under the skin of the opposition’s players, fans and coaches are invaluable assets to their own teams provided they don’t get sent off or concede too many set-pieces or penalties. These are men governed by a madness that systematically pinpoints the emotional limits and aggression thresholds of others and exposes them on a global stage.
To say this type of play has no place in football is noble, yet slightly misunderstood. These players thrive in football – the key is identifying where and why they exist in the first place. The doldrums of the game, from the soggy Sunday league pitches around the world to the amateur levels and even extending to the semi-professional tiers of football, have these types of antagonists in large supply. Many of them never had any skill and found out early-on that their best chance at being on the pitch was a simple, multi-step process. Firstly, they had to recognize and consign themselves to the reality that they had no skill to speak of. Secondly, their role in games was to do “whatever it takes” to help their team win.
Football is the ultimate melodrama. At the high-end, the upper echelons of the game, performances are billed as sensational and dramatic. The cast of characters – generously paid actors, ought to be hyperbolic to the point their mere presence yields frequent exciting enactments on a stage – literally and figuratively – specifically intended to appeal to the emotions of the masses. After all, modern football is about entertainment value and it’s clear the type of “entertainment” the world has come to expect out of footballers is manifested in breath-taking displays of fluid skill, off-the-charts athleticism, and no shortage of flair and theatrics. As such, it comes as no surprise that football’s agitator is also football’s pariah.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3