Posted: Wednesday March 2, 2011 8:06AM ; Updated: Wednesday March 2, 2011 12:55PM
Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe>INSIDE SOCCER

Navarro's shameful play-acting widely condemned by peers

Story Highlights

David Navarro was criticized by peers for faking an injury against Athletic Bilabo

Navarro elbowed Fernando Llorente in the head yet claimed he suffered injury

Valencia's Navarro has a long-standing reputation in La Liga for being dirty

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David Navarro
Valencia's David Navarro has drawn much criticism for his overtly physical play.
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

It was the night of the Academy Awards and the red carpet was rolled out, ready. Everyone was waiting, there was little over an hour to go and the excitement built. "That was the performance of his life. I'm sure they'll give him an Oscar tonight."

But this was no film critic praising Colin Firth. This was Fernando Llorente talking about David Navarro -- a footballer from Athletic Bilbao talking about a footballer from Valencia. Only Navarro is also, it turns out, a heck of an actor. And on Sunday night, he played his role to perfection, a role he had been practicing for years, one that's second nature to him -- the role of sinister, malevolent bad guy.

It happened in the first half of a fascinating, intense match at San Mamés. Navarro and Llorente jumped for a ball together. For Navarro, it was an opportunity. He smashed his elbow into the side of Llorente's head, splitting it open. Llorente was the man who had been assaulted, but as Navarro fell to the ground, he reached for his own head, apparently in agony. Athletic's players rushed over to complain, but as they did so the referee, César Muñiz Fernández, who had presumably not seen the attack clearly, held them at bay. "Can't you see he's in pain?" the referee asked.

Actually, you could. Or you thought you could. There didn't seem to be any reason for Navarro to be hurting, but you did wonder. Then you saw the replay, in which he had wiped out his opponent and suffered virtually no contact himself, and you thought, "No, he's definitely faking it." Then you looked at Navarro again and you thought, "No, maybe he's not faking it." Maybe the replay missed something. Maybe he landed awkwardly. It was such a virtuoso performance that you thought there really must be something wrong with him.

Navarro lay still, very still. This wasn't the multiple roll of the normal cheating footballer -- the kind of tumble and spin that should be accompanied by a drum roll and cymbal crash and immediately reveals that there is nothing wrong with the player at all. This was different. Navarro barely moved. His eyes even seemed to roll back in his head. They ran on with a stretcher and carried him off, still hardly moving, hands held motionless in front of his face. Maybe it was serious. You must have missed something. You felt guilty for doubting him.

And then he got up, and ran onto the pitch, everything entirely intact. Except his credibility.

As Navarro stood on the touchline waiting to re-enter the fray, the referee just waved him onto the pitch. He had forgotten all about the yellow card -- if he had ever intended to get one out in the first place. Behind Navarro, still out of the game, getting treatment, was Fernando Llorente. He needed three stitches in his head.

Navarro's acting had been intended to avoid punishment. In the short term, it worked -- he got no yellow card -- but in the end it made it worse; it made the attack appear even more premeditated, even more cowardly. Even more Machiavellian. Even more of a crime. Rarely has there been a clearer case of adding insult to injury.

Afterward, Navarro claimed that he had felt a slight muscle pull in his neck, a kind of mini-whiplash, and felt dizzy. But no one believed him. He said he had not intended to hurt anyone. But no one believed that either. He said, "You should see my teammates' legs." But no one cared. That's irrelevant. Then he used the old get-out: "What happens on the pitch should stay on the pitch." This time, few were prepared to swallow that kind of thief's code.

This was so appalling, so calculated and cold, that it broke the rules. Navarro had tried to hurt a fellow footballer and succeeded, he had gotten away with his crime by sleight of hand. How could he appeal to a footballer's code of protection? Valencia sporting director Braulio Vázquez expressed his surprise that Athletic Bilbao, "a club with which we have excellent institutional relations," should speak out against Navarro -- as if diplomacy should prevent players who have been assaulted from saying so. Few agreed this time. As one radio presenter put it: "We shouldn't be scared to denounce this."

Llorente wasn't scared. The striker, who gets battered about every game, was not prepared to simply take it this time. Getting fouled is one thing; getting attacked is something completely different. "I am indignant," he told reporters. "It's incredible that he should come out of this smelling of roses. He's got no other game but hitting people.

"It's incredible that there is a player whose only aim is to intimidate. He went out to do damage. He treads on you from behind when the ball is at the other end of the pitch, he punches you in the back. Everyone knows him. What I don't understand is that everyone treats this as if it's normal."

This time, they would not. Navarro may not be banned because the rules do not allow decisions to be "re-refereed," but this time people have taken notice. Not least because of Navarro's history. He punched Nicolas Burdisso in the face following a Champions League game, before running away and hiding in the dressing room. Video footage of a match against Barcelona shows him going up to Leo Messi when the ball is at the other end of the pitch and treading on his Achilles with his studs, before running away. All it lacked was the innocent whistle.

In this very same game against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, he'd already committed another crime too. Navarro had elbowed Javi Martínez in the face before he went out to get Llorente. "Javi is bleeding, I've had my head opened up," Llorente said. Teammate Mikel San José summed it up it in a phrase: "Navarro left two guys bleeding and then did some acting worthy of an Oscar." Videos of Navarro's previous misdemeanors appeared on YouTube and on Spanish football websites; there was a kind of collective catharsis. He had been unmasked at last. AS newspaper described him as "public enemy number one."

Valencia, naturally, didn't like it. Braulio claimed that the "public lynching was unacceptable." The need to defend its player meant that Valencia could not pronounce his actions unacceptable, too. But while its failure to condemn was predictable, the fact that it did not show any contrition at all was striking. Valencia could have apologized or stayed silent, but it didn't. Instead, there was a hint of feeling like the victim, of acting like one. Of trying to excuse the inexcusable.

The Valencia newspaper Super Deporte rode to Navarro's rescue, showing a photo of his legs "covered in cuts and bruises," which didn't look that much like cuts and bruises to the naked eye. Again, the color of the shirt mattered more than the action itself. Again, it was all about taking sides. Other perpetrators were pointed out -- as if that makes everything OK. As if the accused could stand up in court and defend themselves with a simple: "Yeah, I shot him. But, hey, loads of people shoot loads of other people all the time. Don't just pick on me; it's not fair."

Super Deporte's editor moaned, quite correctly, that those who defended Real Madrid defender Pepe -- who attacked Getafe's Javier Casquero, stamping on him and kicking him before punching Juan Albín -- are now calling for Navarro to be punished. It is true that there is a thirst for punishment now that would not exist if the boot was on the other foot and the elbow in another face, as was so graphically shown by Cristiano Ronaldo's clash with Patrik Mtiliga. But if he was quite right, he was also quite forgetful. Conveniently, he had failed to remember who led the call for Pepe to get a huge ban.

But if that was predictable, other reactions were even more tragically inevitable. Former Valencia goalkeeper Santi Cañizares, now a radio commentator, was busy blaming the man everyone loves to blame. Always and forever. The referee. Never mind Navarro being responsible for what Navarro did. Never mind that it was not Muñiz Fernandez's elbow splitting Llorente's head or that he, too, was a victim of the acting. It was the referee's fault for missing it. He had allowed it. Which, notwithstanding the fact that Muñiz Fernandez should have seen it, provoked one question: So, next time there's a murder, should we not blame the man pulling the trigger, but instead blame the police for letting it happen?

But let's not get carried away. There was no murder at San Mamés. Just ask winger Joaquín. Navarro's teammate called on the classic defense, the one that ends all argument and puts everything into perspective. The one that inadvertently said it all about the attitude some have about the game.

"Navarro," he said, "hasn't killed anyone."

Because killing's out. But everything else is just fine.

 
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