Wilfried Zaha is right: Premier League referees must do more to protect star players
Wilfried Zaha's comments this weekend hit the nail on the head when it comes to refereeing
Football is a contact sport. Players get tripped, kicked, bashed and bruised in a battle for victory, that's par for the course. Skilful wingers especially will be targeted physically by defenders in an attempt to blunt their opponents' deadliest weapons. Often it is the only way to avoid losing, by making cynical fouls to halt counter-attacks and take a tactical yellow card. That's fine.
But there is a thin line between tactical fouls and dangerous, cynical attempts to stop an opponent at all costs. That line has been crossed twice already this season, with Wilfried Zaha the recipient of horrific tackles on both occasions. The first, when Étienne Capoue dragged his studs down the back of Zaha's leg, and the second, when Matthias Jørgensen stopped Zaha in his tracks with a shin-high tackle. Both could have ended in serious injury.
Zaha's comments at the weekend, when he complained about the "different treatment" he receives from referees, should come as no surprise given that he has had to deal with being kicked off the park throughout his entire career. And it's not just him. Eden Hazard receives his fair share of hard whacks, as does Jack Grealish in the Championship.
"I feel like before anyone gets a red card I'd have to get my leg broken"
STRONG words from Wilfried Zaha! pic.twitter.com/YXlaaOwbXu
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) September 15, 2018
All three of these players, and many others, attract fouls with their style of play; skilful dribbling at high speeds will inevitably end in being tripped and pushed off the ball at times. But the potentially career-threatening situations they are forced to contend with is a serious problem and should not go unpunished.
On Saturday's Match of the Day, Gary Lineker flippantly said Zaha should "take it as a compliment" when he is targeted by opposition players. Yes, they clearly see him as Crystal Palace's biggest threat, that is - in a sense - a compliment. But when he risks breaking his leg every week, referees are obliged to do more to discourage defenders from making such dangerous challenges.
Garth Crooks also weighed in on the debate via his Team of the Week column, telling Zaha to "stop whinging and whining in your post-match interviews. You're playing a contact sport, the better the player the more likely you are to get kicked."
"Leave the referees and the pundits to condemn the assassins,” Crooks continued. “You just keep scoring sensational goals."
Basically, shut up and get on with it.
Crooks is missing a key point in this debate: the referees are not condemning the assassins. Players are getting away with dreadful tackles, which in turn encourages others to follow suit.
Robbie Savage is often maligned for his opinions, but he was a rare voice of reason amid the Zaha debate over the weekend. The former Leicester and Blackburn player launched a passionate defence on the radio, showing compassion for the player who "gets hammered, week in, week out."
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) September 15, 2018
Too often in football discourse, the focus is on lamenting the gradual erosion of physicality in the game. People hark back to the days of Vinnie Jones, muddy bogs and pints as pre-match preparation.
The game has come a long way, mostly for the better, but there is still a way to go. Many will say diving is the biggest problem facing modern football, but harmful tackles going unpunished pose a much greater threat to the game we all love.
Referees must break the trend, before players such as Zaha break their legs.