Those who bask in the false light of football's `new writing' are blind to the fact that a hard game is being played out there

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The Independent Online
Never mind that idea of a beautiful game, the best advice a young footballer can take on to the field is that no opponent should ever be trusted. I heard it first from a real hard case, a Welsh international everlastingly embarrassed by the disablement once inflicted upon him by a man of quite gentle persuasion.

In moments of deep reflection, which was usually after a pint or two, he would point to a scar just below his right knee and say, "Imagine getting that from a player who probably hadn't kicked anybody before and hasn't since. But the bastard saw his chance, caught me off guard. Take it as a lesson and you are less likely to end up on a stretcher."

Recent incidents make naive the notion that brotherly love is on the upswing and football is becoming a happier world to live in, with or without banged-up knees, stud-scarred ankles, cracked cheekbones and similar marks of the man of culture.

In their eagerness to pile up knowledge about formations and tactics, many students of football today, especially those who bask in the false light of its "new writing", appear blind to the fact that a hard game is being played out there.

Character, courage and similar goodies are shorthand for relentless aggressiveness, for being a tough competitor. The majority of players, I think, would draw the line at being aggressive to the point of not caring whether they hurt opponents, but in keeping with history some should be approached with the utmost caution. Versions of "Find out how fast he can limp" are still with us.

Pragmatism prevails in football. There is no future in violent play but the injection of "nastiness" that one Premiership manager speaks of privately as essential to his team's progress gets closer to the truth than many people imagine.

When the greatest of all footballers, Pele, was first introduced to Brazil's national team, its coach, Vicente Feola, warned that he would not always be able to rely on referees for protection and had better start looking out for himself. Pele could never be described as a dirty player and did not chase trouble but opponents provoked him at their peril. Some years later in Rio, when established as the game's leading player, he broke the leg of a violent German defender, Szmaniak.

When considering the wickedness that football manages to conceal (even under the close scrutiny of television), it is natural to think of defenders; defenders make the majority of tackles and therefore commit most of the fouls. Closer examination, however, reveals that an instinct for getting his retaliation in first did not make Pele unique among outstanding attackers.

Shortly before the 1978 World Cup final between Argentina and the Netherlands in Buenos Aires, I spent an afternoon with Rene van der Kerkhof, whose brother Willy was also in the Dutch team. Speaking in fluent English about various aspects of the tournament, he came across as a thoroughly pleasant and mature young man.

Van der Kerkhof could scarcely avoid being angered by the squalid gamesmanship Argentina employed two days later, taking the field five minutes late and then objecting to a small, light plaster casing he had worn since damaging his wrist in the opening game. But it was no excuse for the dreadful foul he committed barely 10 minutes after the kick-off, driving his boot into the chest of an Argentinian defender.

Norman Hunter tackled his way into legend for Leeds United but greater peril lay in confrontations with a tiny Scottish international inside- forward, Bobby Collins, and John Giles, who appeared many times in that position for the Republic of Ireland. Making defenders think twice about going for them, theirs was a philosophy echoed by Denis Law, Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee, Allan Clarke, Peter Osgood, Kenny Dalglish and numerous other leading attackers throughout the world. Scars remind some of Gerson's contemporaries in Brazil that his creative genius concealed alarming viciousness.

Watching football today, British football particularly, you are aware of the danger in innocence. This springs, I think, from inadequate tuition (defensive play generally is poor) and the absence of experienced players from reserve-team football. A renowned tackler in his day, Nobby Stiles maintained that he learned most about the game from playing with and against veteran professionals when turning out in the Central League for Manchester United. A safe bet is that he too was advised not to trust anybody.

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