Villaflor: Football is a contact sport

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Monday, July 21, 2014


THE recent World cup has had its share of nasty injuries.

Brazil’s Neymar suffered a fractured vertebra, the Netherlands’ Dirk Kuyt had his head stapled, and Argentina’s Javier Mascherano tore his anus.

Except for Mascherano’s injury which was the result of overstretching himself while going after Arjen Robben in the danger zone, Neymar’s and Kuyt’s injuries resulted from forceful contact with opposing players.

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Neymar, who took a knee in the back in their quarterfinal match against Colombia, was stretchered off, while Kuyt, who clashed heads with Brazil’s Maxwell in the fight for third, opted to play on. Mascherano, too, was fit enough to continue.

The final also saw a horrific injury at the expense of German Christoph Kramer, who sustained a concussion after his face crashed against Argentine Ezequiel Garay’s shoulder. As a result Kramer, who had made his first competitive start for his country, was taken off the game midway in the first half. Kramer later revealed that he had no recollection of having played in the final at all. Talk about the World Cup being a terrible memory.

Also, there were minor skirmishes that didn’t lead to serious injury—thanks for that—like the aerial clash that saw Mascherano’s fist land on Schweinsteiger’s cheek, causing it to cut and bleed. Or German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer punching the ball out of harm’s way but couldn’t keep his knee off Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain’s jaw.

To spectators who were new to football and the World Cup, these scenes and the level of physicality involved came as a surprise. All those feet and arms flying, those wayward knees and elbows, those heads clashing in the air seemed incongruous to what one would expect from a beautiful game.

The numerous replays and zooms from multiple camera angles, however, do not lie: football is a contact sport. Well, by definition, football is not a contact sport. The only thing that the 22 players on the field are allowed to hit with impunity and intentionally is the ball, unlike in modern martial arts where the objective is to
knock your opponents senseless.

But given the nature of the football game, where the tempo shifts repeatedly within seconds, from plodding to breakneck speeds, collisions between bodies are inevitable, commonplace, in fact. And with forces that are strong enough to break skin or bone, the player at the receiving end of a forceful blow, his eyes on the ball, is often
unprepared for what’s coming.

The great boxer Muhammad Ali once revealed, “The punch that knocks you out is the one you don’t see coming.” That is why boxers or MMA practitioners protect themselves at all times. But imagine a foot, a fist, a knee, an elbow, a forehead, or whatever body part that you don’t see coming from one, or, two, or three, even five opposing players at a time – that’s what footballers have to deal with for 90 minutes. Imagine what the referee and his assistants have to deal with to prevent a free-for-all, for 90 minutes.

Sometimes, when all we have is action in front of the television screen, we only get half the story. But right there on the field, football is not just about team formations, passing and dribbling skills, attack and defense, the ebb and flow; there’s the constant contact between players—body against body, flesh against flesh, skull against skull, elbow to skull, knee to jaw, flesh to bone, even teeth into flesh—yes, I’m looking at you, Luis Suarez.

With all the rules to rein in dangerous fouls and prevent career-threatening injuries that were the norm half a century ago, the modern game—at the highest level—tries its best not to be a contact sport. Incidentally, however, it still ends up being one.

With the kind of punishment top football players go through, aren’t you glad we’re mere spectators?

(nsvillaflor@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 22, 2014.

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