In football, fury has become part of the job. This sport celebrates coaches with short tempers — step forward Alex Ferguson. It idolizes angry players — think Roy Keane — and hails their on-field aggression and occasional brutality as demonstrations of "commitment" and "leadership." It tolerates the idea that fans have a right to be angry in defeat, although it sometimes draws the line when they rip out their seats and pelt players with coins.
In short, professional football hasn't been a mere "game" for decades, perhaps ever. It is awash with, thrives on, expects and openly encourages raw emotion and hot flushes of anger. In other industries, Ferguson's "hairdryer" outbursts of frustration or kicking a boot in rage at David Beckham might have landed the Manchester United boss in seriously hot water with his employers or a labor inspector. In football, using ill temper as a management tool has earned Ferguson fame and respect. The 71-year-old seeing red is charitably viewed as proof of his enduring "passion."
So if football was more of an honest, thinking sport, and less of a hypocritical one so fond of empty theatrical gestures, there would have been no need for Erik Pieters to apologize so profusely in public and in private this week for slamming his fist through a window. The PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands defender ripped open his right arm, leaving trails of blood on the shattered pane, landing him in surgery and a hospital overnight. This after the referee sent Pieters off for a lunging tackle in a 3-1 home defeat to PEC Zwolle in the Dutch league.
It could have been worse: Pieters could have been blithely indifferent to his red card in the 67th minute. You can bet that fans and his manager would have torn strips out of Pieters for that. In football, caring too much, showing too much fire, fury and "passion" is a lesser evil than not caring enough.
Mario Balotelli is an example of that. To his critics, the striker's crimes at Manchester City include not being sufficiently serious about his job of scoring goals for the club. This is football, dammit! You must be aware, Mario, of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly's golden rule that football is "much, much more important" than mere life and death? So wipe that grin off your face!
Pushed to extremes, the result of taking football too seriously and of football taking itself too seriously is too often tragedy. The Netherlands needs only to look to its backyard for proof of that. Last month, players beat and kicked a volunteer linesman officiating in his son's youth football match. Richard Nieuwenhuizen collapsed and died the next day. Police have arrested eight people for the assault — seven of them teenagers.
The Netherlands Football Association banned Pieters for three matches for his tackle last Friday on PEC Zwolle striker Fred Benson and for kicking one screen and breaking another on his way back to the dressing room. The ban could be extended to a fourth match if the left-back errs again. Wearing his injured arm in a sling, Pieters on Monday apologized both at a press conference and behind closed doors to his teammates and coaches at PSV, a 21-time winner of the Dutch championship since the club's founding in 1913.
Pieters' mea culpa included all the usual platitudes about being "a role model to kids." One couldn't help but wonder whether Pieters might not have been put on show like this if the pane of glass had been stronger. Did the football association's discipline committee and PSV take such a dim view because they really want to discourage players from getting angry? Or was this more about appearances?