Sir Stanley Matthews played professional football into his fifties and was never booked. Sir Tom Finney did not so much as squeak at an official. Sir Bobby Charlton, arguably England’s and Manchester United’s greatest player, was booked once and that was rescinded.
Would anyone argue that these knights of the realm, three of the best the world has seen, never mind England, were not horrible to play against, did not make the lives of their opponents hell, lacked heart, courage or ambition?
Each one stands as a noble rebuke to the argument put forward by Gary Neville in his newspaper column in defence of Diego Costa, that it is OK to stamp on an opponent if that action is a measured response to the unseen evils flying about between attacker and defender.
Neville classified Costa’s act of deliberate violence against Emre Can as “a little bit naughty”. In other words, it might have been better not to do it but it could have been worse and, in the context of the argy-bargy of a compelling contest between two high-quality teams, it was not only justified but desirable.
There is much to admire in Neville’s refined analysis of the game, yet in the matter of Costa he is plain wrong, falling into a trap that snares many an ex-pro.
Neville played the game with a snarl on his face. He was the horrible, aggressive, cussed animal that he so admires in Costa, a beast of a player no left-sided attacker would look forward to meeting. He is, as he acknowledged in his piece, still in the dressing room, and as a consequence errs on two counts.
Deliberate, calculated violence is against both the rules and the spirit of the game. That Costa, as a lethal striker, attracts the unsavoury and often illegal attention of hairy-arsed defenders with broken features does not justify retaliation. He should leave retribution to the referee.
Secondly, Neville’s argument that you cannot have the good without the bad, that a player of Costa’s obvious gifts would not be the threat he is without that bit of devil that leads him to cross the ethical line under provocation, is nothing more than footballing myth.
The same argument was made in support of Luis Suarez, whom Neville referenced in his eulogy to Costa. Grown men who should know better looked the other way when standards of behaviour they would not accept in their children took Suarez the wrong side of the line.
The stamps of Costa and the bites of Suarez are not virtuous examples of a willingness to go above and beyond in the cause of the team. Neville likes his role models to scrap for every inch. So do I. Did Charlton not do this in the service of United? Did Matthews shirk a shift? Did Finney take a backward step?
They had the dog in them every bit as much as Neville’s heroes, but they knew how to keep it on a leash. To do so is not a dereliction of duty or a demonstration of weakness. It is time ex-players and managers stopped indulging thuggish conduct, stopped passing it off as passion, without which the player in question would not be the same.
Costa’s misdemeanours were not inevitable outcomes born of rage but calculated moves designed to do an opponent deliberate harm, acts of cowardice that have no place in the game.
The disappointment expressed by Neville at Costa’s absence from the match against Manchester City and the negative impact it might have had on the spectacle is neither here nor there.
Neville has brought light to punditry with his insightful observations. The view from the dressing room is priceless when delivered in a voice as articulate and informed as his. But on this occasion bias has got the better of him.
It is fine to show fight, to contest every ball, but these qualities are not worth a lick without respect for your opponent.
Neville draws a distinction between Costa’s snide digs and violent conduct. The stamp was acceptable in his world view since it was never intended to do lasting damage and no injury ensued.
That Can’s ankle did not snap under the weight of Costa’s lunge was more luck than judgement. And besides, the fact that it goes against every ounce of common decency, against what it is to compete honestly on equal terms, does not appear to trouble Neville in the slightest.
Costa is a cracking player. He does not need to land underhand blows to prosper. And the impulse to behave in this way does not enhance the package. It drags him and the game down.
Neville’s is an important voice. How the game would benefit if people like him would condemn Costa’s bad stuff instead of indulging it.Reuse content