Disproportionate bans in Italy
8 April ~ In the dying seconds of Inter's 2-1 home defeat to Juventus on Easter Saturday, Esteban Cambiasso committed a potentially career-threatening foul on Juventus's Sebastian Giovinco. Play was by the left corner flag at the Inter end with no danger threatening when Cambiasso clattered in with his studs up. This was a very uncharacteristic act from a player who had never been sent off in his 276 games for Inter, and was probably the result of frustration. Before leaving the field after the red card, Cambiasso apologised and checked on Giovinco's condition.
After the game he also went into the Juventus dressing room, as well as apologising publicly on TV. Fortunately, Giovinco escaped with bruising and was able to play a part in Juventus' 2-0 defeat in Munich three days later.
Cambiasso was handed a one match suspension and it was said that the referee had ruled his foul "serious" but not "dangerous" in his written report. We were also told that Cambiasso's contrition and his previously almost exemplary record were taken into consideration.
But was that enough? What if Giovinco's injury had not been mere bruising but cruciate ligament damage, which it easily could have been? More to the point, it is quite possible that had Cambiasso been sent off for, say, ironically applauding the referee, he would have received a two match ban. It has happened, at least here in Italy, and it is surely a nonsense.
It is time, when handing out suspensions following red cards, to make a distinction between those brandished for dissent in its various forms, or for persistent but not violent foul play leading to two yellow cards, and those that result from foul play that risks inflicting serious injury on an opponent. Dissent needs to be punished but words never ended anyone's career. Therefore if a red card for dissent results in a one match ban, violent play should automatically rule a player out for at least two games – possibly more depending on the severity of the offence.
Some will argue that football is a contact sport and that even if every player played with the best of intentions, there would always be injuries. They are right, up to a point. But most of us can recognise a malicious challenge and referees worth their salt should be able to do so. If we fall back on the "it's a man's game" argument, we risk giving hatchet men a licence to commit GBH.
The game now is much less violent than it used to be. Payers such as notorious Juventus full-back Claudio Gentile would not last five minutes if they played today as they did 30 years ago. But there is still unacceptable violence in the game. One form of it is the tendency of players, when going for headers, to elbow opponents in the face. It is often excused as something that the dynamics of a heading duel render physiologically unavoidable but I do not remember it happening when I started watching football nearly 60 years ago. It seems like a not very subtle form of intimidation and should be taken more seriously because its effects can be potentially as damaging as those of tackles like Cambiasso's.
Football has made giant strides in the reduction of violent play. It could move further towards its elimination if it adopted the principle that physical violence on the field must always be punished much more severely than dissent. Richard Mason