‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we look back at bench-emptying mass brawls in football history, those on-pitch fights, and why they merit and deserve to be included in modern football.
You’ll have to bear with me on this one. Propagating the use of violence, or the threat of it, to enhance the spectacle isn’t an easy sell, you see. This is especially true now given the slow, invidious onset of Orwell’s dystopia– where “crimes” of the mind are policed ruthlessly by GCHQ bods drunk on power and speech restricted by officers of the Metropolitan Police incapable of discerning the nuances of language. I’m talking of course about the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, the mass brawl, a niche that been systematically tackled to the point of near extinction and one whose image is used to define faux outrage in most modern dictionaries.
Nothing invites sanctimony and public opprobrium quite like the large-scaled, disorganised kerfuffle. Instances of politicians wading in with hysterical denunciations after such events are not uncommon and public discourse, across all spheres, is polluted for depressingly disproportionate periods of time. What the naysayers fail to appreciate is the often inherent absurdity of the acts themselves and the comically spontaneous juxtaposing of laws and anarchy. I mean, what is a twenty-two man brawl other than a large puff of smoke with arms and legs pointing out in turns at odd angles? Cartoons of times gone by created a whole sub-genre from such things. Pantomime violence was indulged, nurtured and even held prime of place as a show’s staple. Policymakers ought to hang their heads in shame; the game must be cared for and the ridiculousness of its brutish traditions ought to be enshrined.
Let us consider this writer’s vote for the greatest footballer of them all: Diego Armando Maradona. What is it that encapsulates his genius, induces such fervour from his devotees? The goals? Snore. The dribbles? Hmm. His mania? Well, yes. But more than anything, it was his part in the 1984 Copa del Rey final post-match festivities that embellishes his legend. The opponents that night, Athletic Bilbao, caged (can there be more apposite a verb for the “Butcher of Bilbao”?) a man by the name of Andoni Goikoetxea, a man so ferocious his parents almost certainly yielded to his will when he was but of three years.
A year earlier, in 1983, Goikoetxea delivered an assault so savage that it left the Argentine with a career threatening ankle affliction. By way of apology, he reportedly kept “the boot he had used to destroy [Maradona’s] ankle ligaments” at home in a glass case.
It comes as no surprise then, that Maradona needed little incitement to issue brutal ripostes of his own. Upon the final whistle of a cup final Bilbao won 1-0, violence erupted on all sides and in the thicket, the wee genius delivered the type of justice seen only in the roughest parts of town. Scissor kicks were sent expeditiously with the remorse of a child gleefully tucking into its third piece of apple strudel and a chilling warning sounded the message that here was a man not to be played for a fool. Keyser Soze could scarcely have frightened his antagonists more emphatically.
Maradona’s mythology was enhanced by his vengeful retaliation. It has entered lore to such an extent that it sits neatly besides anything he accomplished in sporting terms. Perversely, transplanted into the current context, it also brings to the fore the idea that back then, men were men who feigned underworld credentials and not injury. Ok, so violence is clearly abhorrent, but then again it would keep the likes of Ashley Young out of a job and that can only be a force for good, right? Let’s at least agree that it would be the lesser of two evils.
Football writers favour a tenuous and hackneyed link to rugby, the alleged “Gentleman’s Game”, so here’s another. The latter pastime loves a good brawl. The culprits aren’t adjudged to be career criminals throwing haymakers; these are men happy to throw a punch and pay for a pint as a means of saying sorry. Were Cervantes’ Don Quixote to be reinterpreted in this day and age, he most probably would have been such an individual, delivering pints and punches with equal zest and merriment. If it’s alright by Cervantes then who are the FA to cause a rumpus?
And what of the glorious post-match interactions between players of Valencia and Inter Milan in 2007?
An imbroglio between Carlos Marchena and Nicholas Burdisso, with murder in his eyes, was rendered ludicrous by David Navarro’s left-field intervention. Sprinting onto the pitch dressed in his full tracksuit, Navarro, an unused substitute, clandestinely made his way into the melee and introduced himself to all and sundry with a right hook that would have drawn applause from Sugar Ray Robinson himself. A comedy ensued whereby Navarro was chased into the dressing rooms via an assortment of flying kicks and sliding tackles — a Sunday League pantomime at Europe’s top table.
The subsequent apology, as is often the case, made great copy for writers everywhere:
“I have never behaved in this fashion before, and I will never do it again… It has been a lamentable incident. I want to apologise to those affected by my actions.”
To those startled by this promotion of aggressive activity, I’d suggest you close your eyes and disobey the banal moralising of those who seek to govern our every sensibility. What I’ve been advocating isn’t so much a hefty left jab or a particularly pungent Glasgow Kiss but rather a reclamation of our collective viscera; that which induced us to love this game in the first place, away from the corporate sleaziness that has infected every nook and cranny today. In the de-sensitising climes of modern football, where one can’t smoke, drink or even stand up next to one’s seat, and where every minutiae is orchestrated by the polity, any reaction against the anodyne happenings of the present are deserving of a sympathetic ear. We’ve been complicit in the ruination of the mainstream, so let’s take it upon ourselves to embrace the niches, some of which still retain their glory.