The criminal tackle in football
Aggressive acts in Dutch amateur football are weekly newsworthy items in the media. Although this is problematic enough in itself, the multiple ways to sanction these kinds of actions can cause strong disparities. What is ‘not-done’ on the football pitch?
While Saturday afternoons can offer millions of people in the Netherlands the joy of playing or watching a football match, a player from football club Te Werve confronted us with the problematic side of this weekly ‘relaxation moment’. Video footage of the amateur match between Te Werve and Sportlust’46 shows an apparently random and brutal kick from behind, while the ball was nowhere near: a prime example of a foul outside direct play with the clear aim of injuring the opponent. The victim of this incident, who was not seriously injured, stated that he had doubts about whether to report the incident to the police because he did not feel the need to punish the offender on multiple levels. The Dutch Football association (KNVB) is already investigating the incident and the expectation is a suspension for a minimum of six matches and a possible fine for the club. A reasonable punishment one would say.
Conviction for a foul
A suspension for six matches can also be seen as a very light punishment if we compare it to a remarkable case that occurred in the summer of 2017, where an amateur football player was sentenced to community service and paying compensation of nearly 9,000 euros (of which 7,500 immaterial) for a harsh tackle which resulted in a double fracture for the victim. Although the consequences were severe in that case, the rest of the situation can be viewed differently. Due to the lack of video footage the facts were reconstructed from witness statements and it is assumed the tackle took place while the ball was close to the incident. In other words: a foul in a situation of direct play. The motivation for the conviction was found in conditional intent; the offender accepted the significant risk that tripping up the opponent could result in an injury. The case, and especially the assumed unlawfulness despite the situation of play, has been heavily criticized. After all, nearly every tackle on the football pitch can be seen in this light. Thanks to the video footage of the match between Te Werve and Sportlust’46, there is not much discussion about the unlawfulness of the act this time.
Football in the criminal court
Red cards and (extreme) violations of the rules of the game are mostly dealt with using disciplinary law, which can result in suspensions for teams and/or players and fines for a club. When the victim of a foul wants more justice than a suspension for a few matches, he is always able to take legal action. In some circumstances, football-related incidents in the criminal court are not odd at all. Extreme cases such as the death of Richard Nieuwenhuizen in 2012 and the kick in the head of a player lying down resulting in a fractured skull in 2006 are examples that some incidents can only be handled by criminal law, mostly due to the fact that the relation with football in these cases was irrelevant. However, in a direct situation of play and the corresponding consent of all parties to participate in such a risky sport, a foul leading to a conviction is uncommon. Rare examples are the above case in the summer of 2017 and the tackle by Sparta player Rachid Bouaouzan that resulted in an unnatural leg position of opponent Niels Kokmeijer. Both cases obviously got so far because of the seriousness of the consequences.
Returning to the incident of the match between Te Werve and Sportlust’46, you might say that the victim was lucky he was not injured and was able to play out the rest of the match. However, in my opinion the offender is lucky as well that his foul did not cause much harm. A quick analysis of the cases described above shows us that the consequences of a foul can outweigh the matter of intent to injure the opponent. In other words: in this case a broken leg (as well as a possible report to the police) could have resulted in a lot more than ‘just’ a suspension for six matches. Although a conviction and compensation for the victim can seem logical in some cases, it is important to be aware of the disparity between compensation such as in the case of the summer of 2017 and purely intentional harsh fouls that do not result in a fracture. The intent of the act itself can be considered relatively unimportant, which can cause great uncertainty among (amateur) footballers.
Anyone who has spent some time in amateur football recognizes the stories about those few players who use football as an excuse for ignoring basic societal norms and values. Maybe it’s time to shift our focus to this side of the coin.