Fighting on the pitch is to be tolerated. Although not encouraged as in Ice Hockey but players brawling on the field will not be punished harshly. This at least seems to be the message coming from UEFA in the wake of Tottenham Hotspurs’ trip to the San Siro last week to play AC Milan, in which Gennaro Gattuso was seen to clash twice with Spurs’ Assistant Manager Joe Jordan that included both a choke and a head-butt. UEFA have issued Gattuso with a four game ban.
Traditionally, particularly in England, attacks on non-participants have been treated with severity. Admittedly an extreme example but Eric Cantona was banned from football for eight months following his ‘kung-fu’ kick on a supporter at Crystal Palace. Paulo Di Canio was also banned, this time for eleven matches, for pushing a referee over.
To me Gattuso’s ban is only made stranger when compared with other punishments UEFA have handed out. For instance, Drogba was banned for four European matches for his famous tirade at the end of their Champion’s League match with Barcelona in 2009.
Surely providing a punishment that is only slightly worse than that received for a red card and the same as someone who, although whose actions were disgraceful, only acted verbally is not really giving the right impression of how players should behave on the pitch. We have made several mentions in recent articles of how player’s behaviour can and should be maintained by regulation and this is another prime example. If fighting is viewed as just another type of foul that players can all but get away with, more of it will occur. Unfortunately gone are the days when footballers can be expected to monitor their own behaviour so large bans need to enforce the issue and consistency in decisions needs to be a priority.
The more interesting point that comes from this matter however, is the lack of criminal proceedings and moreover how police and court systems link in with football’s own disciplinary structure.
Cantona was convicted of assault following his attack on a fan and as a precedent Duncan Ferguson was jailed for three months following his headbutt on John McStay. These are isolated occasions though and criminal action is not often brought about for occurrences on the football field. Perhaps players feel they are outside the law because they are on the football pitch.
This was challenged last year when a player was sentenced to six months in prison for deliberately breaking another players leg in a Sunday league match. The judge offered this explanation for the sentence
“This is a deliberate act, a premeditated act, a football match gives no one any excuse to carry out wanton violence.”
On another occasion last year when a player head-butted another player in a six aside game, the judge said as he jailed the first time offending student for eight months
“Football matches do get heated, but the words used weren’t harmful in any way, although inappropriate. What you did was unforgivable.
“You ran at your victim intending to use your head. I have to send a message that if people use that sort of violence during a sporting contest then prison is inevitable.”
Unfortunately, this kind of sentiment does not seem to have filtered through to the professional game yet. Players have to be accountable for their actions. What would be criminal acts in any other part of society have to be treated as such on the football field.