Football has seemingly constant run-ins with the law — recently betting syndicates, World Cup bribes and racism have stormed the headlines. Yet there is another blotch on football’s record — one that seems to remain somewhat under the radar.
We live in a society where it is generally understood that everyone is (or ought to be) equal under the law. But you might be forgiven for questioning whether this principle is true when following the merry-go-round that is Premier League football. The number of incidents of serious violence during football matches is significant. Examples are not hard to come by: Cast your mind back to when the antics of Joey Barton and Luis Suarez received widespread condemnation.
Barton, a recent speaker at the Oxford Union, deliberately elbowed and kicked two opponents in the final game of the season against Manchester City. Describing the incident, he claimed on Twitter that, “the head was never gone at any stage, once I’d been sent off, one of our players suggested I should try to take one of theirs with me”.
Suarez was penalised by the FA for biting one opponent with a ten-match ban for violent conduct and racially abusing another, gaining an eight match ban and a £40,000 fine.
In both instances, the FA stressed the importance of the players acting as role models. But surely these acts go beyond merely setting a bad example? Both players received fines and lengthy bans from the Football Association, but how is it acceptable that these actions did not receive further attention from the police?
Such behaviour, were it to be committed in any other situation could lead to an arrest. Barton could potentially have been charged with battery, Suarez with battery and racial harassment respectively.
There are some defences for such actions. For example, you can consent to a minor assault (although it would be surprising to hear that Ivanovic was actively consenting to Suarez’s bite). Also, some might venture to suggest that the transgressions committed in professional sport are an accepted part of participation – it is expected that there may be a risk of injury, that someone might ‘lose their head’ and go beyond what is acceptable ‘in the heat of the moment’. Admittedly we do have to seriously question whether it is desirable to get the police involved in all instances of violence. Indeed certain sports, such as boxing, are perfectly legal despite the high possibility of serious injury and even death.
However, boxing is a special case, and transgressions on a football pitch where a player deliberately performs a dangerous act are very much outside the rules of the game.
Indeed, footballers have not been immune in the past. Former Everton striker Duncan Ferguson was given a 3 month sentence for a head-butt whilst playing for Rangers in 1994.
But there are many more cases which have not been pursued. Roy Keane’s assault on Alf-Inge Haaland is perhaps the best known. In his autobiography, Keane recalled “I’d waited long enough… I fucking hit him hard…the ball was there I think… Take that you c***”. The resultant injury potentially shortened Haaland’s career.
Could it be that the reluctance to charge footballers is creating a sub-culture of violence in football? There have been some recent high-profile incidents behind-the-scenes. There have been two such incidents at Swansea’s training ground this season, one to which the police were called. In response, manager Garry Monk claimed “you get it every now and then but that’s because they want to win”.
It is understandable why wronged players rarely press charges. Team unity is considered paramount, whilst lengthy legal processes can harm careers. Managers often justify poor conduct by citing the “passion” of the players, as if violent conduct is acceptable on such a pretext. Yet even if one can understand why incidents behind closed doors go unreported, it does not follow why those in broad daylight in front of 33,000 spectators are ignored.
The inaction of the police and the attitudes of those defending players damages the integrity of the sport, if football is going to gain some respect, surely it is time to address this problem