Opinion

Would the FA act on violence if Roberto Firmino had broken his neck?

If Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino is proven guilty of racial abuse, the Football Association will know exactly what to do with him. There is a process, there are precedents, there will be a severe punishment.

The system is not perfect, but it exists. Luis Suarez received an eight-game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra. If guilty, Firmino’s punishment will be in the ball park of that, as it should be.

If, on Tuesday morning, Firmino was in hospital with a broken back, however, the FA would be scrambling for direction. Bobby Madley, the referee, plainly saw him pushed at speed towards a concrete obstacle by Everton defender Mason Holgate. Yet he awarded no punishment, not even a yellow card.

So the incident was witnessed, and dealt with. The fact it could have ended a player’s career, or changed his life irrevocably, is not the point. The FA have plenty of procedures to deal with words, it is deeds they cannot handle.

This is no defence of Firmino, if Holgate heard him correctly. However angry he may have been, there are plenty of epithets he could have used to express his feelings without mentioning race. He does not get a free pass, no matter the provocation.

Yet, equally, to underplay Holgate’s behaviour because of the aftermath does every footballer, black and white, a disservice. There is a duty of care on the playing field, which Holgate spurned. As the FA, too, have no way of addressing this, they have also failed in their duty towards professionals.

Make no mistake, what Holgate did at Anfield was at the extreme end of recklessness. He delivered a firm, two-handed push to the back of a player travelling at speed towards the touchline, which propelled him into and over the walled barrier surrounding the pitch. We hardly need to speculate further about any injury that could have resulted because the potential consequences are limitless.

There is a reason a mid-air hit or a spear tackle in rugby is at least a sin-bin offence, because the consequences of a heavy fall can be so great. Holgate had no control over what happened to Firmino after his push, he did not know whether he was going to nimbly leap the obstacle or career head first into it. He did not know if he would land on the other side with a bruised ego or a broken neck.

That was why, in the part of Firmino’s outburst that can be understood, he asked Holgate, ‘Es maluco?’ It means: ‘Are you crazy?’

But Holgate isn’t crazy. He’s not even that exceptional in a sport that has never taken violence as seriously as lesser acts. All anyone needs to know about football’s tolerance of violent play is that Roy Keane received a heavier ban (five games) for writing about an atrocious tackle on Alf Inge Haaland in his autobiography than he did for actually perpetrating it (three games).

David Elleray having issued a straight red card, the FA thought they could take no further action at the time. But when Keane detailed the incident in lurid terms, admitting he meant it, they sprang into action.

So while a panel now sits to pore over accusations of simulation, there are no repercussions for behaviour that could have consequences considerably further reaching than a dodgy penalty.

Outsiders new to our game are mystified by this. Ask Pep Guardiola whether he is more vexed by Wilfried Zaha going to ground easily or the Jason Puncheon tackle that could have broken Kevin De Bruyne’s leg.

Yet, once the final whistle blows, incidences of violence are considered to be over. Even when a player, Iain Hume of Barnsley, ended up in an induced coma, the FA could not bring themselves to consider further action against Chris Morgan, his assailant. What are they frightened of? And if brain damage did not challenge this flawed reasoning, what will?

So now, while an investigations team grinds into action to unravel the claim and counter-claim of what Firmino said to Holgate, an open and shut case against a player who could have caused serious physical injury to an opponent is ignored. And, yes, racism has been responsible for extremes of misery and suffering through the centuries and must be addressed. But mindless acts of violence are no lesser crime.

Reckless brutality is what blights our town centres at the weekends, casually changes lives with one punch, scars and scares at random. The irresponsible, witless lack of concern from one human being for another is a curse, even at its most apparently trivial level, on the sports field. And that is what Holgate displayed at Anfield.

As refereeing standards decline there is more chance of players getting away with wild acts, more chance of the extreme being missed, or at least underplayed. The FA act or, ultimately, the worst one day happens. Firmino may be banned, but he was still a lucky man on Friday night.

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