When punishment doesn't fit crime
Before Alessandro Nesta's slide tackle had ended, he had raised his arm in apology. Lionel Messi had been hurtling toward the Milan goal from an inside-right position, and Nesta, returning from injury, couldn't keep up. He only had one option -- to bring down Messi.
It was the second time in the match he had deliberately fouled the world's best player -- in the same position on the edge of the box. Nesta's raised arm in the second instance was surely not a pre-emptive appeal against a booking (it was the most blatant card you'll ever see) but a genuine apology that he'd been forced into chopping down an opponent in such a cynical fashion. Nesta knew the card was coming -- indeed, he happily took it rather than let Messi get past him.
No one would characterize Nesta as brutal defender. Like many Italian center backs, he can be crafty with giving away fouls, but he is more stylish, more composed than his contemporaries such as Marco Materazzi or Fabio Cannavaro. In a way, it was sad to see Nesta forced into the foul -- at Camp Nou earlier in the season, he stopped Messi with one of the best tackles you'll see all season. But in choosing to foul, Nesta was profiting from the situation.
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Little instances like this are extremely frustrating. Wednesday's Champions League first-leg quarterfinal was a superb game of football, featuring great technical quality in midfield. Only some poor finishing meant it finished goalless. But a key feature of the game was the way both sides were able to break up opposition attacks with "clever" fouls, controlling the tempo of the game and preventing quick counterattacks.
There's nothing new in this type of tactical fouling, of course, but in recent years it's become particularly obvious. Pace has become a key part of modern football, and the speed of the game is higher than ever before. Attacks can switch from one end of the pitch to the other at a quite astonishing swiftness, and since so many recent European champions have relied upon counterattacking (most obviously Porto in 2004, Manchester United in 2008 and Inter in 2010), attacking quickly through the center of the pitch is of paramount importance.
The problem is that the punishment doesn't fit the crime. In a lot of cases, the offending player knows he will pick up a card and is happy to collect it to prevent the opposition breaking quickly. His side can get back into a good defensive position, and the attacking side has been robbed of a potentially crucial situation. By committing a foul, the defensive side is better off. Why should it be rewarded for committing a foul?
Jose Mourinho has been particularly vocal about the problem with tactical fouling. "It's a foul they don't punish enough here in England," he said during his Chelsea days, in Gianluca Vialli's "The Italian Job." "It's the foul whose only objective is to kill the attacking situation. It's purely tactical. I remember facing Everton, who had Thomas Gravesen and Lee Carsley. It was tactical fouling, over and over, for 90 minutes."
In this season's Champions League, [Lionel] Messi has committed the joint-most fouls among Barcelona players, along with Dani Alves.
In fact, Mourinho has even complained about Milan doing it. "Milan have a lot of experience, and they know how to control the tempo, commit a tactical foul," he said when his Inter side was defeated in the derby in 2008.
But Mourinho is a clever strategist rather than a beacon of footballing morals, and he has exploited the lack of punishment in these situations as much as anyone. In the Clasicos since he took over at Real Madrid, such situations have been a key part of his game plan -- they stop Barca's attacks and allow Real to get men behind the ball. Since the start of 2010-11, the most booked player in Clasicos is not Pepe or Sergio Ramos but Xabi Alonso. The midfielder clearly isn't a dirty player, but he's been forced into fouls to prevent being exposed. Like Nesta, he always knows what his punishment will be.
"Mourinho's side had gone out with a game plan he used to great effect at Chelsea: constant tactical fouling," former referee Graham Poll said after one of these meetings. "I find it outrageous that deliberate fouls in neutral areas of the pitch are seen as acceptable."
But let's not pretend this is some kind of Real Madrid versus Barcelona or Mourinho versus Pep Guardiola debate, because Barcelona does the same. Seydou Keita did it by bringing down Massimo Ambrosini Wednesday after he'd been dispossessed. Often, Barca does it in a much more subtle way -- it fouls as soon as it has lost the ball, stopping a counterattack before its origins have even become obvious. Back in the Supercup win over Real Madrid, Alexis Sanchez was its most prolific fouler. In this season's Champions League, Messi has committed the joint-most fouls among Barcelona players, along with Dani Alves.
But it's not a problem with these two clubs, or in Spain -- it happens over Europe, and beyond. ESPN freelance writer Tim Vickery has touched on the issue in South America. "Just over a decade ago, some in the coaching fraternity were convinced that part of the secret of victory was to commit more fouls than the opposition," he wrote in his BBC blog earlier this year. "Indeed, it was argued, a foul is not exactly against the rules. Rather, it is something dealt with by the laws -- a resource of the game rather than an offence."
Even if you accept that definition, it's clear that the laws are not dealing with it well enough. A yellow card is often not a fitting punishment in these situations, because it's not acting as a deterrent. It's difficult to know what the solution is -- sin-bins (aka the orange card) have been suggested to make the penalty more severe, but this is an alien concept in football. Red cards would generally be too severe.
But referees must be stricter on deliberate fouls. There should never be an instance in which a player deliberately infringes an opponent and receives no punishment -- this means that every shirt pull, push or intentional trip should be a yellow card, even if in a completely nonthreatening area of the pitch. Miroslav Klose felt harshly dismissed when he was shown a red card against Serbia in the 2010 World Cup after two relatively innocuous trips when Germany lost possession, but this was fantastic to see. Germany was the counterattacking master at that tournament, and as Mourinho has demonstrated, those who play on the counterattack know the value of stopping the opposition from doing so.
As mentioned earlier, the laws of football are gloriously simple and barely change from decade to decade. But rules must adapt to the nature of the game, and at the moment the balance is in favor of those who want to foul, rather than those who want to play.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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