Call us negative if you must (no, go on), but we feel obliged to record the worst football feats of the century before it’s over. Cris Freddi opens the series with an assessment of its most heinous fouls
No shortage of material in this category. We've all got our nominations and it becomes a question of which to leave out. One that gets in without much argument was perpetrated in Manchester United’s Champions League match against Feyenoord in 1997, when Paul Bosvelt crashed his studs into Denis Irwin’s calf, a really dangerous foul. Sándor Puhl, who didn’t even show a yellow card, was dropped from the rest of the competition as well as France 98, missing the chance of becoming the first referee to take charge of two World Cup Finals.
Other horrifying one-offs include Torino’s Fabrizio Poletti breaking Bobby Collins’s thigh in 1965, which takes some doing, and Walter Skocik’s tackle from behind which crippled Jim Baxter the previous year, after which he was never quite the same again (Slim Jim turning into Whisky Jim). Terry Yorath’s early attack on Björn Andersson in the 1975 European Cup final was described by Uli Hoeness as “the most brutal foul I think I have ever seen. His leg was a mess, and it was eight or nine months before he could play again.”
The worst damage of all was inflicted on Dixie Dean, no less, who was only 17 when Rochdale’s centre-half kicked him so hard that he lost a testicle, apparently the origin of the “don’t rub ’em, count ’em” story. Kevin Keegan was lucky to escape a similar fate when he elbowed the fearsome Romeo Benetti in the face at Wembley in 1976, “knocking out a couple of teeth”, which was like sticking one on a rottweiler. Benetti’s threat (“I get you Keegan, before finish”) was carried out when our Kev made Brooking’s first goal for England. As the pass leaves his foot, Benetti’s own arrives at the top of the screen, the Italian knowing the referee will be following the ball. Even at this range, the memory still makes your shins shudder – as does one of Johan Neeskens’s fouls in the 1978 World Cup, when Renato Zaccarelli’s shout of pain was picked up by the TV microphones at the other side of the pitch.
The 1966 tournament threw up its share of classics. Not so much João Morais’s famous double assault (Pelé had missed the previous match after being softened up by the Bulgarians) as Rafael Albrecht getting himself sent off for kneeing Wolfgang Weber in the groin, which must have been a formidable part of his anatomy: Albrecht was limping as he walked off. But perhaps the leading representative of Argentinian football in those days was Carlos Pachamé of Estudiantes, who cut Bobby Charlton’s shin to the bone and broke Joop van Daele’s glasses when he scored Feyenoord’s winning goal in the 1971 World Club Championship. Alf was right about the animals.
Pachamé and Neeskens are also leading candidates for the lifetime achievement award, which goes not to serial early bathers like Mark Dennis or Vinnie Jones but to one of the more skilful breed, who either didn’t have the timing to make clean tackles or did have the timing to make unclean ones. The likes of Peter Osgood, Mike Summerbee, Allan Clarke (“he would leave his boot in just a bit longer than he should have done” said Jack Charlton), Souness and Asprilla, and the undisputed No 1: Michael John Giles of Leeds. Or, as George Best put it, “most especially Johnny Giles”.
Giles once had his own leg broken “and I’m going to make sure nobody ever does it again”. I see, said Charlton, “so every bugger in the league is going to get punished because you once got your leg broke”. But according to Big Jack, “it wasn’t just them, it was us he was putting at risk. John caused us a lot of hassle at Elland Road over the years.”
He caused George Best a fair bit too. “Because we were playing Leeds, I was wearing shinguards,” which saved him from a broken leg. Giles’s studs ripped through his sock, split his shinpad and cut his shin open, “almost ending my career”. Giles was one of the leading playmakers of his day, but it’s impossible to remember him with any affection.
But even he doesn’t win the portfolio award for a single match, which goes to the astounding Mihai Mocanu of Romania, unheard of before England’s opening match in the 1970 World Cup but now a legend. First he kicked Keith Newton’s knee so badly he had to go off, then he took Franny Lee’s legs, then went after Newton’s replacement Tommy Wright (“I thought my leg had snapped, my eyes watered like they’ve never done before”). Lee felt “he must have created a new tackle, leaving identical bootprints on each knee”. Any one of those fouls would have earned a red card today, but Mocanu wasn’t even booked. And people are still nostalgic about the Seventies.
Of the challenges that ended a player’s career, the worst is a toss-up between John Fashanu’s elbow on John O’Neill (who settled out of court) and Dean Saunders on Paul Elliott (who didn’t). A personal opinion? Saunders was lucky. As for Fashanu’s elbows, no strangers to courtrooms, they also broke Gary Mabbutt’s cheekbone and earned the Bash a booking on his international debut for catching Chile’s Fernando Astengo in the face.
Other famous elbows were wielded by Leonardo Nascimento of Brazil and Jan Wouters of Holland. In the 1994 World Cup, Leonardo caught the USA’s Tab Ramos in the temple, fracturing his skull, almost killing him, and even moving Brian Moore to reprimand Kevin Keegan for trying to excuse it. England didn’t reach the finals, partly because Paul Gascoigne had to be substituted after Wouters caught him in the face at Wembley, forcing him to wear that grotesque face mask. Hard to believe the Dutch would have come back to force a draw if Gazza had stayed on.
Mind you, his famous hack at Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final was as bad as anything he suffered himself. Referee Roger Milford admitted he could have sent him off for an earlier foul (“I couldn’t bring myself to do it”) and the self-inflicted damage to Gazza’s knee effectively killed off his status as a world-class player, though it’s taken a long time to die.
The golden fist award ought to go to Leonel Sánchez of Chile, whose father was a boxer of some repute. In the infamous World Cup match against Italy in 1962, Sánchez reacted to a series of kicks by jumping up and flattening Mario David with a left hook. English referee Ken Aston took no action but did send David off for taking belated revenge with a flying kick to the neck. An Italian publication also pointed the finger at Sánchez when Humberto Maschio had his nose broken in the same game. If Sánchez wasn’t responsible for that, the award goes to Paul Davis of Arsenal, banned for nine games after breaking Glenn Cockerill’s jaw in 1988.
The most influential foul was committed by West Germany’s centre-half Werner Liebrich in the 1954 World Cup finals. Brought in against Hungary, he changed places with Jupp Posipal during the match and kicked the great Ferenc Puskás on the back of the ankle. A clear foul (he was booked), it kept Puskás out of the next two matches and reduced his input in the final, which the Germans won. The Liebrichs getting winners’ medals instead of the Puskáses was a central theme of the first five World Cups.
In the next, Vavá of Brazil made two important contributions to Brazil’s win in the 1958 semi-final, volleying the opening goal then smashing the shin of his immediate opponent, France’s classy centre-half Bob Jonquet, who spent the rest of the game limping on the wing. The 5-2 scoreline was a mockery: before Vavá’s foul it was 1-1.
The next time they reached the semi-final, in 1982, the French suffered a similar blow, my choice as the foul of the century, with no apologies for lack of originality. At first glance, Harald Schumacher’s full-frontal on Patrick Battiston looked like a follow-through he couldn’t avoid (no free kick, let alone a red card). Then you watch the replay and see the pause, the leap, the turned shoulder. Battiston, who was stretchered off and given oxygen, had several teeth broken – Schumacher rather crassly offered to pay to have them capped. When people wonder if Michael Schumacher was a relative, this is what they mean. It affected the result, too: France were forced to use their second substitute, so there was no one to chase Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s fresh legs when they came on and pulled a goal back on the way to that penalty shoot-out.
Amazingly, Battiston not only forgave the German, he made him best man at his wedding. But Schumacher still deserves his infamy, alongside other villains like Souness, Gentile, Benetti, Stielike and Tommy Smith. Some of the worst moustaches of the century.
From WSC 145 March 1999. What was happening this month