The days when a Vinnie Jones's torpedo to the legs was punishable by a mere ticking off by the referee have long disappeared. This represents an advancement in the sport, in the hope of eradicating horrific tackles like Roy Keane's to Alf-Inge Håland, (which warranted more than a £5,000 fine and a three-match ban).
In a match at the beginning of April, West Ham's Cheikhou Kouyate mis-controlled the ball, then flew into a tackle on Crystal Palace forward, Dwight Gayle. Referee Mark Clattenburg brandished the red card without hesitation, naturally provoking an uproar from the Irons who felt that they had been hard done by. Yet, the Senegalese's three-match suspension was rescinded by the FA, again highlighting ambiguity of 'what happens next?' as a player goes sliding into a tackle with the intentions of winning the ball.
Getting a touch on the ball, (as Kouyate did, re-watching slowed down footage), but inevitably colliding with the man as a result, usually brings play to a halt. This is fair, since the referee does not (and should not) have the advantage of video replays. Witnessing a player's studs glinting in the sunlight is enough nowadays for a red card to be shown. Evidently, the receiving player will feel the pain from the momentum, but that constitutes the physicality of the sport. A yellow card is acceptable in the given situation.
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Referees, players and their managers are aware what constitutes a tackle that uses excessive force and the consequences that should follow. However, the game been mollified to an extent that overly protects players. Excessive force is treated...well...excessively.
Conversely the art of a robust, but fair challenge is increasingly frowned upon. Perfectly timed challenges that see the 'victim' clutching his kneecap for a few seconds riles the opposition that they will freeze and surround the referee for the tackler to be punished. The referee's human nature can undoubtedly be influenced, and what was a beautiful tackle is marred by a severe warning to the player caked with muddy commitment.
This is especially the case in Champions League matches. The physical nature has gradually depleted to the extent of players not willing to commit to a tackle, lest he gets reprimanded. This subconscious pressure looms in the players' minds. Now, a player that wins the majority of the ball, but with 'his leg's height, directed towards the opponent' (Howard Webb, BT Sport) is more likely to be shown a card. Where else will the player direct their legs if the ball is bouncing in front of their opponent?
A two-footed, off the ground tackle, is clearly a red card offence since the full force of the player crashes into his opponent risking serious injury, regardless of winning the ball. However, single-footed challenges carry the weight of uncertainty. Position, height, angle, area of the pitch and contextually, 'whether the ball was there to be won,' must now all cross the mind of a tackler. Passion, commitment, intention and non-maliciousness are not enough anymore.
In a few years time, strong challenges will only be found on a school football pitch, as a P.E. teacher slides into one of his students with rousing applause.