1966 was a significant year for football. The triumph on home soil of Ramsey's wingless wonders is a fairy tale that will continue to be told in English folklore for many years to come. What is less often heard about in the 1966 tournament is a feeling, particularly in Brazil, that European referees had allowed the more creative players to be kicked out of the game. Brazil in 1966 did not get out of the group stages. Brazil in 1970 won the tournament with a style of football still talked about today. The transition between 1966 and 1970 cannot be explained simply by a drive to protect better players alone but did highlight a schism between the way the game was played in South America and Europe. The perception being that robust tackling and fouling were part of a European approach. Such a generalization is unfair but the balance between flair and brute force is one the game has been struggling with for some time and, 51 years later, it is back in the public eye.
Seamus Coleman suffered a serious leg injury in the European Championship qualifier against Wales and he has everyone's best wishes for a full recovery. By all accounts, he was having a great season and played his part in getting his club team, Everton to the verge of Champions League qualification. The small bit of good news for Coleman is that in days gone by, a broken leg was a career ending injury but with modern surgery the hope will be that Coleman will return and be the player he was. There is no guarantee of this and he is likely to be absent from club and country for quite some time.
One suspects that irate Everton fans have been out in force of social media and football forums. Given that the club is likely to be without one of its better players at a time it really needs him, this frustration is entirely understandable and the question has to be asked about international football and its place in the modern game. Rewind twelve months and the specter of England goalkeeper Jack Butland be stretchered off from a friendly match against Germany, he has not played a competitive match since. Butland's injury seemed innocuous at the time whereas Coleman's was a result of a foul. However, the result is the same which is a player's career and potentially, the success or failure of a club side being affected.
A further element to the Coleman situation is how the game is refereed. The Ireland versus Wales game was officiated by and Italian referee who actually controlled the last World Cup Final. Interestingly, he took the decision to caution Gareth Bale for a tackle earlier in the game that many observers thought warranted dismissal. The school of thought being that if Bale had been dispatched to the dressing room then the tackle on Coleman may not have happened and the referee has been criticized for his leniency in that respect. Contrast that with the recent FA Cup match between Chelsea and Manchester United where the referee felt that one of the better players had been unfairly targeted and took preemptive action to protect them. The referee was praised in some quarters and criticized in others. The referees would be forgiven for thinking they cannot win.
International football was once the pinnacle but one suspects that in the eyes of many it is merely a distraction and not worth the risk that Coleman's injury has highlighted. The financial cost to clubs in today's world threatens to be so significant. Failure to qualify for the Champions League or relegation becomes a stark reality and this is particularly true for clubs who do not have the strength in depth that some of the bigger clubs have.
Injury wise, the term "duty of care" gets used quite a bit, as does the phrase "becoming a non-contact sport". Serious injuries can and do occur as a result of innocuous looking events and these cannot be prevented. As in other sports, it is the tackle that represents the single biggest opportunity for serious injury. Learning how to tackle is vital and football has become very strict on players going two footed, going high and being off the ground. Failure to adhere to these needs to be punished significantly with a sizable ban well beyond what is currently issued.
Tackling will not be outlawed as some fear but the emphasis needs to be placed on educating players as to how the more serious injuries are caused. International football, I fear, may be on more borrowed time as a serious spectacle. One hopes that a balance between club versus country can be maintained.