Leckie tackle: FFA must facilitate player expression

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Nobody who watched the Hyundai A-League blockbuster between Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory this weekend would doubt the depth of the rivalry between the two sides and the passion felt between the two sets of players.

The tackle on young Australian starlet Mathew Leckie by Thai international Surat Sukha – which left the Young Socceroos star out for up to ten weeks with a ruptured medial cruciate ligament – left punters certain of the magnitude of the fixture in the participants’ hearts and minds.

To Leckie’s credit, showing tremendous maturity beyond his 19 years, he refused to create rancour with Sukha over the tackle and was instead quick to state that he felt the tackle was aimed as much at the ball as it was the player.

“Obviously he (Sukha) was going for the ball but he probably wanted to go and knock me about as well… I’m a bit frustrated and devastated that I won’t be able to play for a while now, but I guess injuries happen in football.”

But does it “just happen”? Or should we be proactive in the development of a fledgling league to steward the development of a style of play?

This is how we have to view the A-League. What do we want to see on the pitch?

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Lets say for instance we want to see players taking on other players, beating them with trickery, deception and quickness of feet; like Mathew Leckie, Marcos Flores, Robbie Kruse, Alex Brosque, Tahj Minniecon, Alex Terra and at the same time we also want to encourage a physical contest where determination and strength of will are also genuine expressions warranting display.

In writing this article it is not my thesis to heap scorn on Surat Sukha or insinuate that perhaps the attitude to the game as metered from the dressing room is anything but first class. The passion and rivalry of the two sides should not be denigrated in any way. In fact grit, determination and valour is what makes sport so compelling.

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Whilst it can be said that our league is an extremely physical one, perhaps the most physical in world football, something that this is undeniably derived from the culture and mentality of the country in which the league is based, how referees regulate player behaviour is absolutely crucial to what can be achieved on the park.

However to view the game in terms of what can’t be done is folly.

The diametric is best viewed from the reverse proposition: that the referee is present to ensure that player expression is not stifled by the negativity of anti-football. It is not about the punitive element and what will be done if certain behaviour is exhibited, it is actually about fostering a style of play that is synonymous with the league and that neatly fits in with the psyche of the players and the cultural environment which they are a product of.

Now if we view the comments of Leckie regarding the tackle and his perception of Sukha’s dual focus in attempting it: 1) to get the ball and 2) in Leckie’s words “knock me about as well”, it cannot be said that a player, in catching his marker flat footed, rounding him and collecting a tackle from the side to his left knee when the ball is shielded on his right hand side – has been allowed freedom of expression.

It is all too often the case that A-League referees seem not to be aware that they are the ultimate arbiters of freedom of expression on the pitch when 22 players enter the field of play. With this absolute privilege comes recognition of the extremely delicate balancing act between the expression of players in terms of finesse, trickery and deception with technique and a genuine physical contest for possession.

Further many would argue that the balance has not been struck by referees between parsimony and profligacy with respect to the issuing of cards.

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Therefore, in the vacuum that exists, a credible stance on the desired playing style of the Hyundai A-League must be issued from the FFA. This must necessarily involve an examination of the existing style of play and a strategic directive being issued to referees to enable the A-League to develop its own brand of joga bonito that many, including current Socceroos, have suggest existed more clearly in football in Australia’s past.

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