• Sat
  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 10:10pm
The Rational Ref
PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 4:09am

A balance between tit and tat

The physical elements of the game vary widely, depending on the culture of the competition in which players develop

Soccer, like rugby, hockey and basketball, is a contact sport where physical interaction between players is accepted as part of normal play. There has to be an element of give and take, or tit for tat.

The trouble is, tit and tat in soccer are never equal. This is why so many players, coaches, fans and commentators get so worked up over the argie-bargie nature of the game.

One player returns a little shove here by giving a more forceful push there, which is then reciprocated by an even harder body charge from his opponent, or maybe even an elbow or a kick, until fists fly.

Tit never equals tat, so how much physical contact between players is acceptable, or permitted? Welcome to an important grey area of soccer. One revealing aspect is always the players' perspective about what is and isn't acceptable. This has a lot to do with local culture and training methods embedded in the development of players, which in turn shapes the characteristics of a region's or country's playing style.

The British style has long been regarded as being highly physical. The Scottish Premier League and English Premier League epitomise this rough and tough characteristic and many home-grown players have come to accept physically bruising encounters as normal.

Up-and-coming young players such as Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey already have reputations as tough tacklers who can more than hold their own in physical challenges. This is generally how young British players are taught. Tit for tat, only tat is always greater.

Shelvey, who this time last year was controversially sent off for serious foul play during the red-blooded Liverpool and Manchester United match, said: "[Soccer] is becoming less and less of a contact sport. Some players are making what you would consider good, old-fashioned tackles but are being punished for them."

Rational Ref reckons Shelvey was harshly treated. In fact, looking at the two-footed challenge by opponent Jonny Evans, if anything it should have been the United man seeing red. These two players were simply engaging in tough, physical challenges for the ball, which is how soccer is taught and accepted in those parts.

"If I had pulled out of a tackle against Manchester United, I would probably have hurt myself and the fans would have gone mental," said Shelvey, who now plays for Swansea.

Pulling out of physical challenges is generally looked down upon, especially in the EPL. But surprisingly it happens everywhere, even in Hong Kong.

When two players are vying for a high ball, they are both expected to jump to head the ball and consequently bump into one another. That's the physical nature of soccer. However, it is noticeable that players are increasingly pulling out of jumping, and the consequences are sometimes disastrous, either to the player who pulled out or to the airborne opponent.

We saw this on the first day of the EPL, when Arsenal's Bacary Sagna expected Aston Villa's Christian Benteke to jump with him. Instead, Benteke stopped and stooped slightly, which basically flipped Sagna over in mid-air, causing the Frenchman to fall awkwardly.

Sagna took a potentially life-threatening fall when he landed awkwardly on his neck with his full body weight.

This type of incident, where one player fails to jump for a ball, is a foul. The player who pulls out from jumping is the offender.

To British players, tackling is considered a good "skill". To players from other parts of the world, such as Spain and Hong Kong, it is not regarded as a quality at all.

Xabi Alonso, who has played in both the EPL and La Liga, does not understand why tackling is so well regarded in the EPL. He says tackling, unlike passing and shooting, is not specifically taught to players.

"[Tackling] is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game. Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn't a quality to aspire to. It's hard to change because it's so rooted in the English football culture, but I don't understand it," Alonso said.

So, finding the balance between physicality and skilful positional movement with consideration to player safety while also allowing the game to flow and be entertaining is essential in making the game enjoyable.

Hong Kong, with its cosmopolitan mix of expatriates and local players at the professional and amateur levels of the game, is an exciting blend of these characteristics. Some players will go down at the slightest knock, while others will simply ride rough challenges and get on with it.

With time and experience, players and referees will sense the right balance and the physical level of a league's playing style will be honed.

A final note: All the talk about new signings before the transfer deadline made one well-known commentator speak with great care. Match of the Day's Gary Lineker introduced Crystal Palace's new signing by deliberately and slowly saying: "Jack [pause] Hunt, got to be careful with that name."

Agree of disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com

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