Hazard's ball boy kick a black eye for beautiful game
LONDON -- There might as well be one article about Wednesday night that begins with Swansea City's win over Chelsea, lifting the Swans to a first-ever appearance in a major cup final.
"It's a small fairy tale," said manager Michael Laudrup after a 0-0 draw, having watched his side comfortably defend the two-goal lead it had earned at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, to set up a meeting with Bradford City of the fourth tier in the League Cup final at Wembley Stadium in a month's time. Unfortunately, the fairy tale has already been dwarfed by the furor surrounding Eden Hazard's red card for kicking a ball boy in the 79th minute.
If you have yet to see the video, here's a brief summary: the ball goes out of play behind Gerhard Tremmel's goal, and with just over 10 minutes remaining for Swansea to see out, the ball boy dithers over returning it. When Hazard attempts to grab the ball from him, the ball boy drops on top of it, and after unsuccessfully attempting to shove the ball out from underneath him, Hazard applies his toes. As the ball emerges, the ball boy clutches at his ribs, apparently in pain. Cue shouting from gathering Swansea players, and attempts at appeasement from their Chelsea counterparts.
Besides the red card for Hazard, police were briefly involved before the boy opted not to press charges. Nobody comes out of this very well. The ball boy concerned has been named as Charlie Morgan, the 17-year-old son of Swansea City director Martin Morgan. He had been a ball boy at the club for six years, but this was, according to his Twitter account, his first game of the season and a one-off return to fill in for someone who could not make his way through the snow. His tweets included the hash-tagged line: "#needed #for #timewasting."
It is not new to see ball boys and girls taking their time over returning the ball to the opposition. On Sky Sports' coverage of the game, former England, Tottenham and Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle admitted that managers pass on instructions for the ball boys to act slowly when their team is ahead and the clock is ticking down. In this sense it is no different to the kinds of tactics the players themselves are encouraged to deploy in conducting a game at a rhythm and tempo to suit them and frustrate their opponents.
Hazard is only five years older than Morgan, but he is not so green as to be unable to recognize such shenanigans. All he needed to do was keep his cool and draw the referee's attention to the time being wasted, all 10 seconds of which would have been added to the end of the 90 minutes of normal time. That Chelsea had not before that point mustered anything so determined as to be mistaken for urgency makes Hazard's impatience even more peculiar. An unhurried Rafael Benitez had only just asked Fernando Torres to get stripped. The game was tapering off.
If all of that is not enough, though, everybody knows that you just do not go about kicking people.
Though we can rationalize, to some extent, what the ball boy did, it was still a moment of high farce. Morgan's drop to the floor as Hazard stood over him was a study in the kind of half-assed flopping we see every week in the Premier League, his decision to lie on top of the ball much like the players who try to force referees to award them a free kick by grabbing the loose ball as they tumble. As a parody of the shamelessness of modern soccer, bravo young man, but it is still entirely inappropriate behavior.
Not least because Swansea did not appear to need that kind of help. With Chico Flores and Ashley Williams marshaling the defense superbly, Chelsea managed just four shots on target at the Liberty Stadium. Tremmel, the backup to Michel Vorm who had previously described this as "the biggest match of my career," was equal to all of them. Swansea was already well on its way to that first major trophy final. Laudrup said after that he knew his team would progress once his players started so well. "The way everyone entered the game, I thought we could do it."
The only violence that could excusably have been done to Charlie Morgan on Wednesday night was being pulled home by the ear by his father, who spent the aftermath of his club's wonderful performance liaising with South Wales Police and officials from Chelsea. Attention that ought to have been devoted to Swansea's magnificent achievement has instead been gobbled up by this avoidable pantomime drama.
Given that Hazard and the ball boy apologized to one another in Chelsea's dressing room after the game (each probably rather more embarrassed than sorry), let's not dwell on this incident. Hazard deserved his red card, and the FA will set itself up for all sorts of future bother if it reverses the referee's decision. Let's not get involved in conversations about the sudden and urgent need for professional and impartial ball boys, no matter how well meaning.
Swansea's achievement is not just over two legs against Chelsea (which is, as the fans keep reminding us, champion of Europe), but in sustaining the upward trajectory of the past decade without detriment to the club's relationship with its fans or compromise to its style of play. The club has borne each managerial change of the past few years with considerable aplomb, each time ending up with a team improved upon the last.
The 2012-13 campaign was supposed not only to be made more stressful by Brendan Rodgers' departure, but also to be haunted by second season syndrome. Instead Laudrup's team sits ninth and will play in a League Cup final that almost everyone is looking forward to -- the first in nine years not to feature at least one of the traditional big four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. Against Bradford, Swansea will no longer be the underdog, but Laudrup has so far been too gracious to talk about it as a must-win game. "[Bradford] have beaten three Premier League teams, it is marvelous," he said. "If I had a hat, I would take it off.
"We are in the final and I think everyone -- players, the club, fans -- needs a few days to understand what we have done. We have a month to take it in, to enjoy it."