From David Ginola to Wilfried Zaha: Why are the Premier League’s most skilful players unprotected by officials?

By Ahmed Shooble
May 4 2020, 12.30

‘Joga bonito’, or ‘The Beautiful Game’, is the nickname for football popularised by greats such as Pele and Eric Cantona. For many football fans, this moniker serves as a reason to love the sport so deeply.

For me, it is a mantra which decrees that football should not just be played to win, but to win with style. Yet the disciples of this philosophy have suffered in delivering this message at the hands and feet of those who favour pragmatism over panache, particularly in English football.

Players like Wilfried Zaha and Eden Hazard who brave this awkward climate have often been left with bloodied ankles with minimal sympathy from referees. But why are those who make the game so beautiful to watch unprotected by officials when targeted for their genius?

Typically speaking, skilful players base their game on the art of deceit. A dummy here and a feint there to trick opposition markers into committing one way while they breeze past in another direction.

This approach is always likely to be the riskiest for an attacker as the game is played at such a ferocious speed, the chances of mistiming a challenge are high. Combine this with opponents focusing more on these dangerous players to nullify their threat, it paints a precarious scenario for the league’s most talented attackers.

But what happens when this targeting goes too far? A prime example came in a game between Crystal Palace and Southampton in January 2019.

Those familiar with James Ward-Prowse will know he makes it something of a personal mission to ruffle Zaha’s feathers in two of his 38 league games against Palace. But that reputation hailed from his jovial reaction to Zaha seeing red in more ways than one.

For Ward-Prowse and countless others, it is simple – stop Zaha and you stop Palace. The referee failed to give a foul for what was clearly an illegal push and Zaha, a player who is all too familiar with this kind of treatment, was understandably incensed although his actions were inexcusable.  

But a player who commands this special treatment from the opposition should surely be given more attention by officials to counteract those who seek to kick, trip and shove them to minimise their impact on the game.

Almost a quarter century ago, David Ginola faced the same fate in a time when English football was less accommodating to skilful players. In a league cup tie against Arsenal, the Frenchman was on the receiving end of foul after foul with no sympathy from referee Gerald Ashby.

In the end, Ginola sought his own revenge by elbowing Lee Dixon and was sent off. But as he went down the tunnel, he was allegedly heard crying “They won’t let me play football.”

And now 24 years on, why are these players still maliciously targeted with no reprieve from officials? Particularly when the Premier League has a reputation for world-class attacking talent and free-flowing football?

As comfortably the most fouled player in the Premier League over the last five seasons, Zaha provides an intriguing case study for this issue. The forward has publicly urged officials to protect him while affirming his direct playing style would not change.

Former Palace winger Darren Ambrose played with Zaha and despite not witnessing it in the Ivorian’s formative years, Ambrose has noticed the difference in treatment Zaha is subjected to at present.

Ambrose said: “I work as a corporate host for Crystal Palace so I have seen him fouled a few times this season and the challenges haven’t been great. 

“I saw the talkSPORT interview and sensed his frustration which is understandable and I do think Wilf and other skilful players should be protected more.

It has happened throughout different eras and has happened to me before but that doesn’t excuse it and players shouldn’t have to just deal with it.”

But while he feels officials could do more, Ambrose is not convinced referees can make the desired impact to level the playing field for skilful players.

He added: “I don’t think officials can stop skilful players being targeted as such. However, being given a yellow card or red card for the severe challenges of course will make players think twice about doing it.

“It’s a very difficult subject because you don’t want to take the hustle and bustle out of English football but you also don’t want the skilful player to be seriously injured or scared to show what they can do.”

Perhaps English football’s intolerance for players with abundant flair has contributed to their lack of protection. Skilful players are often unfairly labelled as divers while professional fouls and illegally gaining a few extra yards on a set-piece are branded as gamesmanship. While all these acts go against the laws of the game, the latter is still hypocritically revered on these shores.

There is a stubborn Englishness in this attitude which not only creates an unsustainable environment for the league’s most skilful to thrive, but it also plays into the idea that these players are a luxury unworthy of protection and should “take their beating without bleating”.

Astonishingly, given his own torrid time with injuries, Michael Owen gave some alarming advice to Liverpool against a Manchester United side which had used all three substitutes in the first half

Owen said: “If I was Jurgen Klopp, I’d be saying ‘first opportunity, go and kick Marcus Rashford on the ankle he’s been limping on.’”

The fact Owen was so comfortable imparting this advice as a professional pundit is indicative of wider animosity against those who can create chances from nothing.

The main reason why English football’s perspective on skilful players is so merciless is because those officiating the game allow it to be so. With proper consequences for malicious and petty fouls, the incentive for targeting these players will hopefully diminish.

After all, it is these elegant players who make the beautiful game so entertaining to watch.

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