The snowballing of outrage over Nigel de Jong’s tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa has been as inevitable as the neeed to fill football pages in a week without high profile games. The story has followed a journalistic arc that’s worth recapping as we attempt to make sense of the acres of comment – and then roll our eyes at the inevitability of it all.
In the beginning: the tackle took place on Sunday without a free-kick being awarded by the referee, who saw the incident. Play wasn’t stopped and the Newcastle players did not react with outrage. Television commentators at the time, and later on Match Of The Day 2 offered sympathy to Ben Arfa, but judged the tackle legitimate.
It was a strong tackle, but de Jong got the ball first and kept his foot down. On subsequent replays it could be seen how his trailing leg caught Ben Arfa. In slow motion this can look deliberate, while at real time it appears to be momentum. Only de Jong will know for sure whether there was any intent to catch Ben Arfa with his trailing leg.
After the game Chris Hughton called the tackle “unneccessary”. This was picked up by journalists writing match reports and interpreted as strong condemnation by a man not known for outspoken criticism.
It could have been viewed as the words of a manager who was gutted at seeing a new signing (in a relatively small squad) ruled out for most of the season. It wasn’t wholly accurate as Ben Arfa was going through and it’s de Jong’s job to tackle players in such situations.
However that is less of a story, especially with de Jong having previous from the World Cup final and the breaking of Stuart Holden’s leg earlier this year. The kung-fu kick on Alonso was an iconic moment from the World Cup and one ready to be milked for subsequent stories.
Next came the match reports on a game won by a brilliant individual goal, scored by new England winger Adam Johnson. Apparently controversy makes a better story and the focus was on the de Jong tackle instead. Two disputed penalty decisions added further to the controversy in a game where City hadn’t played particularly well.
By this time it was confirmed that Ben Arfa’s leg was broke in two places – and now the condemnation could really start. Without the break, it’s doubtful de Jong’s tackle would have been mentioned as the controversy could have focussed on the penalty decisions. We can say this because he wins the ball with strong sliding tackles in every match and nobody bats an eyelid.
The later the match reports were filed, the greater the condemnation of De Jong. The debate about dangerous tackling has been a recurring one in the season thus far, so it was natural for columnists to pick up on de Jong’s challenge and add it to his previous.
As we saw with Adebayor’s goal celebration last year (you know which one I mean), a bandwagon soon starts to roll. There are those who take the moral high ground (broadsheets mostly) and those (tabloids) who border on the hysterical in their screams for ‘justice’.
Moral high ground:
“Football has a duty to disarm its human missiles” Richard Williams, The Guardian.
“It is still another area where football is inattentive to matters of most vital concern – and basic decency” James Lawton, The Independent.
“Nigel de Jong should be banned for the whole time that Hatem Ben Arfa remains on the sidelines.” Ian Wright, The Sun.
With no Monday night or midweek fixtures, sports editors required their journalists to provide further comment to fill the required football column inches. A well trodden path is followed with calls for a reform of the rules.
The idea of players being banned for as long as someone they have injured appears particularly poorly thought through. For example, what if Alfie Haaland had been able to prove Roy Keane’s tackle had resulted in the end of his career. Should Keane’s career have also been ended as well? To go one step further, if the incident had taken place while Keane had still been with Nottingham Forest, would we then have been spared his entire career at Old Trafford?
Back to the de Jong tackle and we next had something of a first from the Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk. Despite not seeing anything wrong with his players tackling in the World Cup, van Marwijk provided the media with another choice adjective in describing de Jong’s latest as “wild”, and subsequently dropped him from two games where he wasn’t likely to be required.
By taking the opportunity to appear virtuous after receiving flak for sending out a talented Dutch team to play “anti-football” in the World Cup Final, van Marwijk had now ensured Ben Arfa’s left leg was a global talking point.
To give the story additional legs and provide debate in blogs, TV studios and talk radio, a counter view was also sought. All essential stuff to keep the punters watching, reading or listening.
The Daily Mail demonstrated why they have such impressive web stats by arguing it both ways.
“There have been lots of tackles worse than De Jong’s on Hatem Ben Arfa this season.
“De Jong’s tackle was a full-blooded, strong challenge. The ball was there to be won and he wasn’t setting out to break a leg.”
“They should ban De Jong until Ben Arfa can play again. De Jong shouldn’t be allowed to play football. His tackle was criminal.”
By this time City put out quotes from Roberto Mancini to show support for an important player, while Newcastle appear to have taken all the media comment to heart and written “a strongly worded letter” to the FA requesting retrospective action.
Something of a reactive action by the Magpies as the FA had already been required to state it can’t offer retrospective punishment as the referee saw the incident. Fortunately for them, this can be put down to a FIFA ruling. Anger at the inability to string up de Jong could be focussed on Sepp and co – hardly something the British media are averse to.
And what of Nigel in all this? He kept his counsel, and was castigated for it. Doesn’t he realise the media want quotes?
Alongside Stuart Brennan in the faithful local paper, at least Nigel has a Dutch friend in World Cup favourite Mark Van Bommel.
“Thanks to Nigel we reached the final of the World Cup. And now I hear people calling him a criminal. What a nonsense.”
City’s response has been understandably low key – the media can spin statements to fit their own angle, and the club are currently a target for bad press following the release of the financial accounts. A few unattributed quotes about disappointment with Newcastle were put out via Ian Ladyman in The Mail, along with the suggestion that de Jong would visit Ben Arfa. This hasn’t been picked up elsewhere, but it would be no surprise to see some quotes or gesture from Nigel – possibly after the furore has died down.
And thanks to Liverpool the media, like all good circuses, can move on to the next town. A possible deal for the ownership of the Anfield club can now fill the football matches before England play at the weekend, and no doubt there is a collective sigh of relief at Eastlands.
Will that be the end of it? Of course not. The spotlight will be on de Jong in our next game at Blackpool, and the following week it’s Arsenal. Remind me, what does Arsene think of tackling in the English game?