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Has football gone soft?

Full blooded tackles used to epitomise British football. They used to be part of the very fabric of our game.

Iconic images such as Terry Butcher's blood soaked shirt and players like Roy Keane were applauded by managers and fans alike for their tenacity and desire.

These days, tough tackles are punished rather than celebrated. The days when a player could walk away without being penalised after a full-blooded tackle are a thing of the past.

As Phil Neville puts it: "We don't tackle as hard as we used to - 10 or 15 years ago when I was faced with a tricky left winger the first thing I had to do was boot him up in the air."

This used to be commonplace. But football is now a business first and foremost and its players are its star asset - and, like any asset, coaches, officials and the money men at the top are out to protect it.

'Overzealous' challenges

Nenad Milijas and more recently Vincent Kompany (pictured) are just two examples of players that have felt hard done by referees for their ‘overzealous’ challenges in recent weeks, much to many people's dismay.

It’s all part of a clamp down by officials on two-footed challenges over the last couple of seasons that has almost led to a fear of tackling. Has this been the catalyst for the amount of goals that have been conceded by teams this campaign, in what has been a record-breaking season thus far? Or is it merely a coincidence?

Peter Roberts, the Referees' Development Officer for Manchester FA, says: "The ruling for a two-footed challenge is that the moment a player leaves the floor, he is not in control of his own body, If he takes the ball cleanly, it is a free-kick and a caution. If he takes the ball and the man, it is a free-kick and a dismissal for serious foul play.”

The FIFA law on tackling states: “Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one of both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play.”

The ruling seems clear, but there is still so much uncertainty and split decision when it comes to incidents. It’s the inconsistency that infuriates managers players and fans alike. What is deemed as dangerous? It boils down to opinion and interpretation.

Four match ban

This is evident in the case of Kompany and Glen Johnson. The Manchester City captain was shown a red card and handed a four match ban while Johnson's tackle, of a similar nature, wasn’t even deemed a foul by referee Lee Mason. Both were two-footed.

Common sense should prevail in such incidents. Referees sometimes seem too quick to show a red card if they see a player making a challenge with both feet. They should - and to be fair, they very often do - take a moment to assess the situation. Or, dare I say it, is technology the answer?

Referees have come under immense pressure by their bosses to penalise two-footed tackles, violent conduct and tackles with ‘intent’ - coupling this with the speed of today's game and the split second they have to make a decision has led to the increase of cards shown for tackles that in years gone by would have gone unpunished.

Joey Barton recently aired his criticism of referees through the medium of Twitter, after the QPR captain was sent off for violent conduct. He felt the decision was unjust.

He said: “I wonder how long it is before a football club sues a referee for making a bad decision? There is too much at stake to not have technology or a player sues another player for playacting. Someone has to set the precedent to stop the game from being ruined; maybe I’ll be the 1st one.”

Criticism

Who would want to be a referee nowadays? Constantly on the wrong end of criticism from managers, pundits and fans alike; used as a scapegoat for losing teams, and now with the possibility of being sued for human error. This will pile on the pressure for officials (as if there wasn’t already enough) and become a deterrent for individuals thinking about taking up refereeing.

With all this talk about football going soft, there are still a few teams who relish the ‘crunching tackle,’ the Blackburns, Stokes and Wolves of this world, but they are few and far between.

Some are against the clamp-down on tackles, some celebrate it, but it all comes down to one question. What would you rather see - the likes of Robin Van Persie, David Silva and Gareth Bale on the treatment table nursing a broken metatarsal, or on the field lighting up the game we love?

Tackling may be a dying art, but it seems the game is even more beautiful for it.

By George Chambi

Follow George on Twitter @GeorgeChambi


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