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The de Jong Hysteria: A Brief Timeline

13 October 2010

Now that England have suffered the ultimate humiliation of failing to break down an organized, resolute Montenegro side and have dropped points at home in Euro 2012 qualifying, the English media have a new target for national hysteria and Nigel de Jong can finally get take a break.

It’s been fascinating to watch the de Jong-as-legbreaking-thug meme blossom into a full-on pile-on, with sensationalist headlines in UK papers beating the drums and arming villagers with torches and pitchforks and talk of legal proceedings against the Dutch midfielder.

But how exactly did we arrive at this point? And where and when exactly did all of this madness begin?

It didn’t begin with referee Martin Atkinson, who didn’t even deem the challenge a foul and had carried on with play until it became obvious Hatem Ben Arfa was hurt. In his match report to his bosses, Atkinson stated that he had seen the challenge.

It didn’t begin with match commentators Sam Matterface and Stan Collymore, who didn’t seem to make much of anything of the challenge of Ben Arfa’s injury, even after seeing the slowed-down replay. Collymore went as far as to question whether Ben Arfa was actually hurt by the challenge, using the rather bizarre symptom of a lack of turf-pounding by the injured Newcastle man for his diagnosis.

It didn’t come from the in-game commentaries on major footballing websites in the UK. Here’s what they had to say about the challenge when it happened:

Replays suggest the tackle was very firm but it did seem fair as he played the ball. But it’s not looking good for Ben Arfa. He’s now receiving oxygen as he’s being lifted onto the stretcher.
–Christopher Hammer,

Tioté hoofs Milner up in the air as the City midfielder takes a pass out on the left. But while Milner hops straight back to his feet, Hatem Ben Arfa is down a few yards away following a heavy challenge moments earlier from De Jong. The Dutchman took the ball but his trailing leg caught Ben Arfa right on the knee. That looks worryingly like it could be serious.
–Paulo Bandini, The Guardian

It looks bad from Hatem Ben Arfa, and the stretchers are out. It was a characteristically tough challenge from De Jong, who caught Ben Arfas standing leg with his own trailing leg. Ben Arfa’s ankle buckled, and he’s now taking oxygen.
–Ed Ballard, Telegraph

It didn’t begin with Newcastle boss Chris Hughton, who only went as far as to question the necessity of the challenge in his postmatch interview:

Everybody will have their opinion, I’m quite sure, it’s been shown enough times. But my feeling was, at the time, it was a challenge that didn’t need to be made. I probably don’t want to go into whether it was a foul. The best thing I can say was it was a challenge that didn’t need to be made. We have an exciting player who came off second best in a challenge and the news is not good. It has upset everyone in the dressing room.

It certainly didn’t begin with Hughton’s right-hand man, Newcastle assistant Colin Calderwood, who defended the City player and in a radio interview:

But I wouldn’t want to take that type of challenge out of our football.

The consequences of the challenge are horrible but there was a certain amount of misfortune in that Hatem’s legs were attached to the ground a little bit and the force with which de Jong hit him definitely moved the leg.

It didn’t begin with the postmatch pundits the evening of the match. Both Kevin Keegan and Nicky Butt found nothing wrong on ESPN, and the consensus in the studio of the BBC’s popular Match of the Day program was that it was a clean tackle.

No, it began in the next morning’s tabloids. The Sun was the first to speak of the tackle in anything other than “tough but fair” tones. The Daily Mirror was the first to make it a headline matter. Soon Graham Poll was weighing in on the matter with typical hyperbole, as suddenly there was “no place in the game” for de Jong.

What really seemed to kick the madness into overdrive was the decision announced that afternoon by Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk to drop his starting midfielder from the Dutch squad for the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers. Forgetting for a moment that after South Africa this summer, van Marwijk dropping a player for a tackle is like Tony Pulis dropping Rory Delap for taking too long with a towel prior to a throw-in, here’s what the Dutch boss had to say:

I just informed the squad and told him I saw no other possibility. I’ve seen the pictures back. It was a wild and unnecessary offence. He went in much too hard. It is unfortunate, especially since he does not need to do it. The funny thing is that the referee did not even show a yellow card for it. Apparently, there are other standards. But I have a problem with the way Nigel needlessly looks to push the limit. I am going to speak to him.

Sensing the shift in public opinion and spying the opportunity to jump in, Newcastle suddenly and dramatically changed their tune, requesting that the FA discipline de Jong, despite the fact FIFA rules don’t allow for such a sanction.

Still, the tabloid and TalkSPORT feeding frenzy was under way, and now you had players like Newcastle’s Jose Enrique coming out with the ridiculous idea that de Jong should be banned for as long as Ben Arfa is out injured. It was essentially the same overreaction we’ve seen every time a player has been seriously hurt in a challenge, be it Eduardo, Aaron Ramsey, or Moussa Dembélé.

The voices of sanity did begin to speak up, such as the Daily Mail‘s Andy Townsend, who pointed out the utter hypocrisy of van Marwijk dropping de Jong, and the Manchester Evening News‘s Stuart Brennan, who called out everyone engaging in hyperbole in the matter. ESPN’s Rebecca Lowe sounded a similar note, with Mark van Bommel essentially called out his national team coach for the decision. To the club’s credit, City correctly identified van Marwijk’s decision as little less than scapegoating and took Newcastle to task for their opportunism.

Still, you had PFA chief Gordon Taylor singling out a player who has never been sent off in the English game — and has just one red card in eight seasons as a professional footballer. And the backing of former Public Enemy Number One Ryan Shawcross seemed to do little more than link de Jong with the player who actually delivered a horrific tackle over the weekend: Wolves’ Karl Henry.

The saga then took another ludicrous turn with the announcement by Ben Arfa’s parent club, Olimpique de Marseille, that they were looking into taking legal action against de Jong.

Things have quieted down finally in recent days, but I’m sure it will start up again for de Jong on the off chance he does actually get sent off for once or, God forbid, he’s involved in another challenge that sees an opponent injured.

More likely, however, we’ll be left to watch this whole lunacy repeat itself the next time another player has the misfortune of suffering a serious injury from a tackle. Sadly, hysteria simply appears to be the only way English fans know how to deal with these sorts of things.

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