In every sport, there are players that are described as playing on the edge, incorporating excessive amounts of intensity, tenacity, and sometimes physicality into their play. This is highlighted more than the impact that they have in the game.
You see this in soccer with the likes of Pepe, Diego Costa, Nigel de Jong, Luis Suarez, etc. These players are all great examples of this, displaying their passion for the game on the field more obviously than their colleagues.
Especially in the Premier League, these players are given a lot of grief for the way they play. Take the example of Diego Costa, who thrives on riling up his opponent, and himself for that matter. You can see it in his play, when he gets angry and starts physical battles with defenses, he tends to step his game up a notch. However, in recent years, soccer has become less and less a contact sport as a result of societal value changes and health science in areas such as head trauma research. A shame if you ask me, considering the more open and exciting games to watch are the ones that referees allow to become more physical.
After Euro 2016, Ronaldo was wise enough to publicly state that he thought Pepe should have been named the player of the tournament rather than Antoine Griezmann. This is because Cristiano understood that Portugal’s gritty and oftentimes unattractive run to the trophy wouldn’t have been possible without the guile and barbarity of Pepe’s game, especially when Ronaldo went off injured and Portugal faced the full brunt of France’s attack in the final.
As I previously stated, soccer is becoming less and less of a contact sport, and by all accounts, this trajectory seems to be continuing. I think it is very telling that referees are gaining the limelight now almost as much as the players (I’m speaking to you Mark Clattenburg), when referees really should remain spectators until they are needed, letting the game flow until it is required by the laws of the game to intervene. And to this point, I think it is wrong to criticize players like Costa, Pepe, Suarez, Ramos, and others for using what motivates and stimulates them to help their teams. By no means am I condoning the biting of other humans by saying this, but I am suggesting that a push here and a bit of smack talk there has an important place in the game.
Some of the legends of this game featured on the pitch in the same way. The likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Roy Keane, and Marco Materazzi are legends in the eyes of their fans, and only because they were allowed to use their aggression, the so-called dirty side of the game, to elevate their play and help their teams achieve greatness.
In fact, the best teams tend to rely on a player of this nature to galvanize and raise the team when they are under pressure and need someone to throw around a few hard challenges. Real Madrid have Pepe and Ramos, Atletico Madrid have any number of such players, even Barcelona have Javier Mascherano to add some brute force to the team.
I have seen too many games in recent years ruined because every little push, every shoulder-to-shoulder tussle, and every contested header is deemed too physical for the modern game. So in this era, I admire the players that still view the game as a 90-minute war, a figurative fight to the death. All I ask is that these players be allowed to the play the game the way that suits them, and I guarantee, the sport will be better because of it.