by Rob Shepherd.
There are some people (often Arsene Wenger) who don’t seem to think the tackle is anything to shout about anymore.
But without solid, honest, properly timed tackles what would dazzling footwork and skill mean if it went unchallenged with the sort of ‘After You Claude’ attitude that the Arsenal manager seems to think should be adopted by opponents.
Indeed, much of the magic of Lionel Messi would become meaningless if there was no threat.
That’s not to suggest turning the clock back to the days of Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter, Ron ‘chopper’ Harris or Italian hitman Claudio Gentile. While Hunter and Harris were symbols of an area where enforcers were given more leeway in this country, it was Gentile who took the role of defensive midfielder to another level on the international stage not least when he man marked and harassed Diego Maradona out of the game at the 1982 World Cup finals, a tournament Italy went on to win.
It was the way that Maradona was effectively kicked out of the tournament, as Pele had been in 1966, which began FIFA’s process of changing the laws, starting with outlawing the tackle ‘through from behind’, and insisting referees issue cards for violent tackles.
In the main it has been positive, promoting more attacking free-flowing football at home and abroad.
When people try to compare Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to Maradona and Pele it should always be remembered that the latter thrived when the advantage was with the defenders in the Seventies and Eighties, even up to the 1990 World Cup after which FIFA stepped up their crusade to ‘clean up the game’ (well, on the pitch at least).
Footage of Gentile stalking Maradona during that game in 1982 which Italy won 2-1 is quite extraordinary and would surely have resulted in a red card and not too long into the encounter either. It makes Hunter look like Snow White…
Some of the challenges bordered on assault. Yet a defiant Gentile, who was eventually showed just a yellow card (Maradona had earlier been cautioned for complaining at the rough-house treatment), stated afterwards that: “Football is not for ballerinas.”
Without the sort of shackles players have on them now Gentile, sometimes with stealth, sometimes subtly, sometimes slyly, often outrageously, then went on to hound Zico of Brazil in one of the all time classic matches which Italy won 3-2 to put them into the final against West Germany, a game the Italians would win 3-1.
That said, there has been an ironic twist to the clamp-down on the dark arts of defending that Gentile turned into a sort of science, one which we are starting to see too often in the Premier League.
Few and fewer players seem to know how to tackle properly which often results in woefully timed lunging challenges that are often far more dangerous than the ones iron feet men like Hunter, Harris or Gentile used to plough in – well at least until they were upset or angry.
Of course another unwanted side effect is that more and more forwards dive, buying free kicks and getting opponents into trouble.
And when you look at old footage is should be noted that whilst a lot of the tackling was fierce it was more often than not fair, in a time when a lot of players shunned shin pads and some played with socks rolled down around their ankles.
And for many there is tackle back in the day that proves that tackling is a form of skill in its own right when performed properly.
It came in the 1970 World Cup finals when Bobby Moore bided his time before caressing the ball of the advancing Jairzinho then immediately setting up a counter attack.
Yet footage has just come to light which in many ways betters Moore’s tackle – because it led to a goal from inside the scorers own half.
OK, it was in an obscure lower league in Italy but it’s worth looking at it and asking: ‘Is this the greatest tackle of all time..?’